IATEFL 2016 Opening Plenary

After a brilliant PCE day with MaW SIG, it is time for the opening plenary of the 50th anniversary of the IATEFL annual conference in Birmingham. Marjorie Rosenberg welcomes us to this ‘momentous event’ and tells us that Birmingham has more and longer canals than Venice! Who knew… (answer: Sandy knew!) She also told us about the many things going on and reminded us to take home an IATEFL teddy bear keyring, visit the IATEFL tree in the exhibition hall and take photos at the aforementioned tree or at the IATEFL frame, for a souvenir. After a long list of thank you’s and being wished a wonderful conference, it was time for the one and only…

(Professor) David Crystal!

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His talk will cover the changes in the English language since the year 1966 (when IATEFL was established and when the world’s first successful human heart transplant was done, Sweden changed to driving on the right, the first Boeing 747 made its maiden flight, the first issue of the Rolling Stone magazine was published and the most fashionable item of clothing in a woman’s wardrobe was a miniskirt!). He will compare the changes that have taken place in the last 50 years with those that will take place in the next 50.

Who would have thought it? 1966 – 2066.

One of the questions David is most often asked is why he finds language so interesting, why did he become a linguist? A simple answer – two words – language change. Whatever a language was like yesterday, it’s different today and will be different tomorrow. With a global reach of over 2 billion speakers, English is even more so. The language we spend a lifetime learning to teach will not stand still. The only languages that never change are dead ones. If the ‘enemy’ is language change, it will pay us to get to know it better.


The loss of old words and senses, the arrival of new ones. How much lexical change takes place in English? Oxford’s choice of word of the year this year was emoji, Collins was binge-watch, for watching a box set of a series in one day. Dictionary.com went for identity, reflecting the increased attention being paid to gender and sexuality in the last year. The Australian dictionary went for mansplain – the act of a woman trying to explain something to a woman which she already knows!  What about the words that will be left out in order to make room for the new ones? When Collins got rid of fubsy (fat in a nice kind of way) there was a national save ‘fubsy’ campaign, supported by Stephen Fry no less!

Vocabulary change is always difficult to quantify as we never know what words/phrases will be permanent features and what will be transient. To give a sense of how words go out of use, let’s look at words that were coming into use when IATEFL was born. These have not been heard or used recently!

  • D-Day
  • Beautiful people
  • Flower children
  • peaceniks
  • yippies (politically active hippies)
  • dolly bird (probably wearing winkle pickers!)
  • hully gully (a dance)
  • frug (another dance)

You might be wearing a Mao (hat) and discussing Ostpolitik, Reganism, Powellism, UDI. You might read of the Black Panthers or Rachmanism. Or more mundanely you could see the latest report of the confrontation between the mods and the rockers and pick up your trimphone to tell your friends all about it!

The speed of change suggestions caution when using the internet as a source of up-to-date vocabulary. It is idiosyncratic to the point of eccentricity. Anyone can make up a word and have it included in the Urban Dictionary. The usage might be “liked” by a large number of people, but if you are going to use a source with teenagers, check it regularly or you will find yourself using last year’s word. When IATEFL was born, people were calling each other Daddy-O, calling things groovy and bidding each other farewell with ‘see you later alligator’…

For this year, in terms of neologisms, if you are wearing your kicks you are wearing your trainers. A slashkini is a one piece swimsuit with lots of cut-outs. A manel is an exclusively male panel. A wasband is a former husband. If something is very stylish, you would call it wavy, whereas if something is unattractive, unpleasant and unfashionable it is basic. Calm means good/cool, while digital amnesia is the inability to remember basic things because of over-reliance on devices. Dude food is food that is said to be favoured by men, often including meat. A Skype family relies on Skype to keep contact as a member lives overseas. The grey gapper is a person of retirement age who takes a year out to go travelling. To pocket dial is to call someone by accident when your phone is in your pocket.

Two points should be noted: over half those expressions contain more than one word so when we talk about new words entering usage we are talking about compound words and often they require understanding of the underlying words e.g. wasband. Since the arrival of the internet, it is now possible for anyone who has electronic means to encounter English in its world wide varieties. A decade ago it would have been difficult to do that without going to a place.

The millions of people who actively use the internet encounter an unprecedent range of varieties of English. Different varieties of English become neighbours on the screen, as do different levels. So accommodation becomes common.

Grammatical Change

By its nature far less noticeable at any one point in time. Only by stepping back and looking at large quantities of data over a length of time like a decade can changes become apparent. On the 5th November 1819 John Keats sends an apologetic letter – “Had I known of your illness I should not of written in such fiery phrase in my first Letter” but elsewhere in the letter, he uses “You should not have delayed”. It’s difficult to discover early usage preferences as works have been edited. Other examples can be found in Keats and Austen. I was much disappointed. I have been several ties thinking. He seemed watching her intently. You look very nicely indeed.

The frequency of some modal verbs is declining e.g. shall and must and may. In one big study using the diachronic corpus of spoken English, must reduces by 50%, shall by 40% and may by 37% in all categories studied. They have been replaced by semi-modals like have to.

  • You must be more careful
  • You have to be more careful

The former is more authoritarian.

  • The calculation must be right. (Certain)
  • The calculation has to be right (Less sure)

In each case what we see is a lessening/softening of the strength and certainty.

In the 1960s “I’m loving it” would have been “I love it”. The dynamic use of stative views is grown.

  • I’m wanting a new fridge
  • I’m intending to apply a new job
  • I’m need a new coat
  • It’s concerning me a lot
  • It’s mattering to me greatly
  • I’m knowing the answer

Know seems to have largely resisted the change so far but not worldwide, in India it is common. It seems likely that all stative verbs will develop dynamic uses over the next 50 years.

  • The book that I bought
  • The book which I bought
  • The book I bought

The last one has remained stable (typical in informal spoken English) but the use of which is dramatically decreasing. The change is the direct result of the antagonism towards the use of which in the 20th century grammar (Fowler etc.) David likes which but his copyeditor changes all his which’s to that. The association of which with more formal styles of expression has also contributed to its demise.

Any new word or grammatical construction is going to be encountered sporadically. But all words new and old have to be pronounced. So any change in pronunciation will be frequently perceived. We are sensitive to changes in accent. So how have pronunciation and accent changed?


Attitudes towards pronunciation and accent have changed. Some accents have changed their phonetic character significantly. Susan Ray Scots presenter in Dundee was withdrawn when BBC had their RP drive, but today there is institutional recognition to a change in attitudes to regional pronunciation, so within the BBC all are recognised and celebrated/used. Regional radio gained an audience and National radio lost it. The new audiences liked their presenters to speak as they did. But National figures remained strong in series like the Archers and Coronation street where local accents were valued. Non-indigenous accents also began to be heard. RP continues to have a strong presence in broadcasting but its phonetic character has changed. In the 30s it was very plummy, in the 60s and 70s even it sounds dated now. Changes continue to affect RP. Even the queen’s accent has changed, today she uses more open mouthed vowels and centralised vowels.

Estuary English attracted media attention in the 90s. The Estuary is the Thames, the people with accent live on either side of it, chiefly to the North. They use question words at the end like “right?” and “innit?” Phonetically it is a set of accents intermediate between RP and Cockney. Features of Estuary have radiated out through the country. They haven’t replaced the local accents of the areas they have reached but just modified the phonetic character, pulling the vowels and consonants  in different directions. The Estuary heard in Hampshire is very different to that heard in Leicester. In Birmingham there used to be Brum. Now there is Jamaican Brum, Indian Brum, Italian Brum etc. In London this is most noticeable, with over 300 languages spoken there. It’s not that one accent replaces another but more that features combine to create a third. So in the case of RP, we now have modified RP. We have modified everything these days. Accents are a mixture of accents. There are hundreds of variant forms and inconsistencies in speech. In the latest edition of Gimson, the term RP is dropped completely. General English is used instead.

Sociolinguistic research since the 1980s has noticed two noticeable trends: increase in positive attitude to regional accents and an increase in negative views towards RP. This turnaround has happened within 20 years. Regional accents are considered warm and friendly, RP is considered cold and distant. Call centres and TV commercials provide convenient indications of change. During the 90s there was a marked increase in use of local accents. So its probably in Pronunciation that we will see the most significant change as we look forward to the next 50 years. 3/4 of the worlds languages are syllable timed. Stress timing will become less of a priority in the next 50 years, David believes. The future seems to be syllable timed. And it’s a future in which the pace of change is increasing.

Today, a new usage can be around the world in seconds in written and spoken form. The internet is the largest corpus of language there has ever been and presents more variants than have ever been seen before. Not only vocabulary has been affected but spelling too. The internet suggests that a top-down simplification of spelling is not the only way. Spelling might simplify as a result of use and being seen online. On the internet, there are no copy-editors or proofreaders and people can spell however they want. If people spell too idiosyncratically then they won’t be understood but rhubarb – rubarb for example won’t be a problem. The internet may be the force that changes the perception of what is correct.

B.B.C became BBC, Mr. to Mr, 1960’s to 1960s. But most of the orthographic nature of English has remained the same. But online radically different practices are common e.g. in chatrooms, the dropping of all capitalisation, like using i instead of I as the personal pronoun. Once upon a time in Old English there was no punctuation and now the internet is reconnecting us with those old manuscripts!

It is not only the Internet but also broadcasting media and literature that have had an influence over the language. Writers from all over the world write in English and experiment with non-standard styles of expression. Contemporary right has a multi-dialectal nature. The notion of indigenous is no longer clear cut. The lines are becoming blurred within the language and how it is used today. Literature is just the tip of the iceberg of ethic expression.

It’s crucially important to avoid confrontation in all of this. It’s all too easy for pedants to condemn non-standard English on the internet or in new literary sources and call it language deterioration. Conversely it is all to easy for people to revel in the freedom of the internet and disregard the canon that is there heritage. We need to devise an appropriate philosophy that brings about a mutually enlightening relationship between these poles. It’s no easy task given the speed and multidimensional complexity of contemporary language change. The most difficult teaching jobs in the world are language-related jobs. The need to translate and interpret, hugely difficult, the need to teach, hugely difficult.  If David were in charge of the world, all teacher’s salaries would be quadrupled!