David Crystal works from his home in Holyhead, North Wales, as a writer, editor, lecturer, and broadcaster. He published the first of his 100 or so books in 1964, and became known chiefly for his research work in English language studies, in such fields as intonation and stylistics, and in the application of linguistics to religious, educational and clinical contexts, notably in the development of a range of linguistic profiling techniques for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. He held a chair at the University of Reading for 10 years, and is now Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. These days he divides his time between work language and work on internet applications.
1) Most language students, or English literature students, might be familiar with your work, especially your encyclopedias on the English Language, yet many of them might not be aware that you are a blogger, too. How was it that you came to be a part of the blogging world?
Mine is a reactive (as opposed to a proactive) blog. In other words I use it to answer questions that I get sent through other channels. Because people know of me from my books, they do write to me a lot, and some years ago I realized that the same questions were coming up over and over. A blog was the obvious way of dealing with the potential duplication. By answering a question on my blog, I can simply refer a new enquiry on the point to the relevant post. It has saved me huge amounts of time. It also means I’m not a regular blogger, as I only post on topics (a) of general interest and (b) where I’ve got something fresh to say. I don’t rehash stuff that’s already available in my books or in standard reference sources.
2) In your lecture of ‘The Language of the Internet’ (on the10th of February 2012 in Rotterdam) you mentioned that the future of language, and more precisely of the English language had not yet been radically affected by the Internet. You also mentioned translating programs and apps that might help with conserving language, that there might even be no need for a lingua franca like English anymore because of these translating devices. Do you think that that might affect the way people view accents, especially non-native speaker’s accents?
We’re thinking a long way ahead, when talking about efficient translating devices. Basic phrase-book-level ‘Babel fish’ will come soon, but providing sophisticated translation is going to be a very different matter. When I said there may be no need for a global lingua franca, I was really thinking of the main uses that lingua francas have had in the past, in formal international contexts. There will of course always be a place for lingua francas in everyday domestic settings and in settings where electronic devices are impracticable or useless (eg because of a lack of power).
The Internet is already reinforcing altered perceptions of accent. With five non-native speakers in the world for every one native speaker, and a huge variety of educated accents now heard around the English-speaking world, the old notion of RP (or General American) as being in some way special is really outmoded. And the anonymity present in much of the Internet means that nobody knows whether you are a native or a non-native speaker anyway. The important thing is that you are intelligible, in whatever accent you use, while remaining proud of your regional identity.
3) Cecile’s Writers is a blog dedicated to writing and launching a literary magazine aimed at people who write in English, which are either non-native speakers of English or are native English speakers living in a non-English speaking country. What is your take on writing creatively in a 2nd or 3rd language?
This is a natural process of development, though it takes some time for a mature local style to evolve, reflecting local culture and identity. It’s a hugely important moment when writers are confident enough to write poems, plays, novels, and so on in a second language about the things that matter to them, using a style which differs from that encountered in standard British or American English. We see this process taking place in such areas as Caribbean poetry, the West African novel, short stories in Singaporean English, and so on. Nor are such developments restricted to former colonial territories. I talk about this a lot in my ‘Stories of English’. There’s huge scope for the evolution of a ‘Dutch English’, therefore, involving the use of loan words, expressions that don’t translate into English (lekker), cultural allusions that don’t travel outside Holland (eg to do with dykes), and many more such features of Dutch identity. And the same applies to Danish, French, or any language where a significant local use of English has built up. I am sure there will be a Dutch English literature one day. You may know of examples already.
4) In your lecture on ‘The Death of Language’ (on the 26th of October of 2010, in Rotterdam), you said, if I may paraphrase: that language is like a soul and speaking several languages is like having many souls. Do you read multilingual writers in a different light than monolingual writers and can you read, so to speak, the different souls in their writing?
Yes, in principle, but it’s difficult to generalize, because so much depends on content (is the subject-matter one that motivates the exploration of these ‘souls’ on the page?), specific circumstances (eg are the two languages written in the same orthography? if not, the choice of alphabet would immediately manifest those identities), and audience (who is the writer wanting to reach?) The clearest cases I’ve come across are those where the narrator or characters in a story use different languages or dialects, as in Suhayl Saadi’s Psychoraag (which uses Glasgow English, Urdu, and standard English). One can see the different ‘souls’ there, I think.
5) You have written more than 40 books, making a very prolific writer. The writers and readers here might be interested to know: have you ever suffered from writers block? And if so, do you have any tips on combating it? If not, what do you think on the subject of writer’s block?
Yes, more than 40 – about 120 now, actually – though it all depends on what one counts as a book – not just large authored works, but edited works, short books for schools, second editions, and so on. This is where my blog comes in handy, as predicted above.
Writer’s block? Never. Early on I developed a strategy of working on more than one thing at the same time. (I had no choice, actually, as there was so much demand for books, articles and reviews on language.) This meant that, when I got fed up with project A (or couldn’t think how to take it forward) I could switch to project B. After a while, an idea would surface about how to handle the problem in project A, and I’d go back to it. Fortunately, language is a subject which allows that kind of approach, because it is so varied and is always changing, requiring fresh appraisals. The more diverse the tasks the better, I find – which is where the Internet is really helpful, as one can get the writing wheels moving even by the simple task of sending a message to an online forum.
The other thing I do is not allow myself to stop writing. If I’m faced with an apparent impasse in what I’m writing, I carry on writing anyway. It might be rubbish, but out of that rubbish something will come which revision will hone into something acceptable. Revision is crucial, and the more the better. I once kept a tally of the number of times I revised a chapter for a book I was writing (by keeping every draft electronically), and found I’d produced over 200. For a poem it might be much more. Remember Oscar Wilde, spending all morning poring over a proof of something he’d written, eventually taking out a comma – and in the afternoon putting it back again! I’ve done that too.
Thank you very much for the interview and for sharing your thoughts here on Cecile’s Writers.