Lost in a lin­guis­tic land­scape

David Crys­tal lacks the wit to make a ram­ble through well- trod­den ter­ri­tory in­ter­est­ing, writes Frank Camp­bell By Hook or By Crook: A Jour­ney in Search of English By David Crys­tal HarperCollins, 318pp, $ 29.99

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

LAN­GUAGE aca­demic David Crys­tal once told apos­tro­phe mil­lion­aire Lynne Truss not to bother writ­ing a book on punc­tu­a­tion be­cause it would never sell. When it did, he wrote a book at­tack­ing Truss, de­cry­ing her fun­da­men­tal­ism. Crys­tal di­vides lin­guis­tics into two camps: pre­scrip­tives v de­scrip­tives. Or­wellian lan­guage cops or de­tached ob­servers of in­evitable change.

It’s a du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion, yet th­ese Round­head- Roy­al­ist bi­nary op­po­si­tions in­fect ev­ery­thing from pol­i­tics to re­li­gion. Ob­jec­tively, A and B may be sim­i­lar, but they’ll still kill each other. Think Ul­ster or the Balkans. Iden­tity is all.

Lan­guage is a set of rules that change un­pre­dictably. Cod­i­fi­ca­tion has ac­cel­er­ated for 500 years. Crys­tal sees rul­ing class con­trol­f­reak­ery where Truss sees clearer com­mu­ni­ca­tion. In fact, the dis­puted ground is mod­est. Both sides can look silly: de­scrip­tives in prac­tice are of­ten pedants, while pre­scrip­tives break their own rules. Lan­guage hates strait­jack­ets. To err is hu­man.

Lin­guis­tics is split three ways be­tween school­teach­ers, anec­do­tal­ists and anoraks, the lat­ter hoard­ing garage­fuls of glot­tal stops and Kiwi vow­els. The anec­do­tal­ists splash about in the shal­lows of philol­ogy.

Good, clean fun, but lin­guis­tics is a stunted dis­ci­pline, mired in de­tail, reify­ing lan­guage rather than see­ing it as a di­ag­nos­tic tool for the dis­sec­tion of power, iden­tity, class and ori­gin: lan­guage as so­cial DNA.

As we all use lan­guage and lan­guage rep­re­sents iden­tity ( falsely or not), lan­guage is hot. It al­ways was. Teach­ers beat my grand­par­ents for speak­ing Welsh in their Ed­war­dian school­yard. Now the Bri­tish tax­payer funds an ex­pen­sive Welsh lan­guage re­vival. ( They’d pre­fer a Welsh culi­nary re­vival. As Spike Milligan pointed out, the only thing worse than bad Bri­tish cook­ing is good Welsh cook­ing.)

By Hook or By Crook is an aim­less ram­ble, mainly through Wales. Crys­tal bumps into peo­ple and asks about their ac­cents and ori­gins. The north is in­flu­enced by Lan­cashire, the Borders by Brum and the south by im­mi­grants. They all think they’re Welsh and are proud of it. You may think th­ese ob­ser­va­tions could be de­duced from a map, but that’s all the in­tel­lec­tual gold gleaned from this em­pir­i­cal mul­lock heap.

None of this would mat­ter if Crys­tal were an­other Bill Bryson, who in­spired him. Alas, David is no Bill. Bryson is of­ten per­cep­tive and witty. Crys­tal waf­fles through the ob­vi­ous. His jokes sound like a drunk chang­ing gears. Bryson is a great per­am­bu­la­tor. Crys­tal is merely pedes­trian. Crys­tal has writ­ten more than 90 books on English. He’s close to na­tional trea­sure sta­tus in Bri­tain, which may ex­plain why this pro­lix, con­fused, self- in­dul­gent book was waved through by the pub­lish­ers.

At this point you’d rather be hun­gry in a cod­for­saken al­most- Welsh town such as Sod­ding Chip­bury than read a book on lin­guis­tics. But all is not lost. When Crys­tal sticks to lan­guage and isn’t pon­tif­i­cat­ing on bridges or prat­tling about cas­tles, his anec­dotes are in­ter­est­ing.

Crys­tal’s anec­do­tage re­minds me of E. W. Cole, the 19th- cen­tury Melbourne book­seller and lin­guaphile whose ran­dom as­sort­ments of fac­toids made him a house­hold name. Crys­tal tells us that Tarzan and Sher­lock Holmes never said you- know- what to Jane and Wat­son. And the ab­surdly long name of that Welsh vil­lage is a fraud, be­ing a 19th- cen­tury con­fec­tion aimed at rail­way tourism. And 22 peo­ple were killed in a riot be­tween fans of two ri­val pro­duc­tions of Mac­beth in New York in 1849.

Then we have word deriva­tions, an end­less triv­ial pur­suit: cob has meant a well- built man, a spi­der, a her­ring, a male swan, a small haystack and a loaf.

And how about col­lec­tive nouns, a favourite of mine? Crys­tal notes an ab­sence of wait­ers, a

mur­der of crows and a muck­ing­fud­dle of spooner­isms ( his own, he says, but also coined in The In­de­pen­dent in 1995). I give you a truss of apos­tro­phes, a colling­wood of mag­pies and a vac­uum of celebri­ties. Like Crys­tal, I di­gress.

If Truss is Madam Lash, how lin­guis­ti­cally laid- back is Crys­tal? Ac­tu­ally, not very. He cas­ti­gates Truss’s ‘‘ so­cial agenda’’ while dis­guis­ing his own. They both want con­trol. Truss wants us to obey gram­mat­i­cal rules; Crys­tal wants to pre­serve dy­ing lan­guages as though they were threat­ened furry mam­mals. Ev­ery dead lan­guage means the ‘‘ loss of an­other unique vi­sion of what it means to be hu­man’’, he says. A false tru­ism. Lan­guages don’t mag­i­cally con­tain cul­ture, they rep­re­sent it. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. When a cul­ture dies or morphs, we are left with phys­i­cal de­tri­tus, fit only for Pi­casso to pla­gia­rise or an­thro­pol­o­gists to cat­a­logue. By the time lan­guage dies, cul­ture has long gone. Even in large, so­phis­ti­cated cul­tures, such as Celtic Bri­tain, ar­ti­fi­cial lan­guage re­ten­tion is just that: ar­ti­fi­cial. If Welsh is on a drip, then Ir­ish and Scots Gaelic are in in­ten­sive care, spo­ken by a hand­ful of self- con­scious peo­ple. Strewth, Scot­land and Ire­land are brogue states as it is.

Up­ping the ante, Crys­tal clunkily pro­claims that ‘‘ lan­guage di­ver­sity demon­strates the in­tel­lec­tual health of the planet on a grand scale’’. He loves the pro­lif­er­a­tion of di­alects, ac­cents, ar­gots and cre­oles within English ( as if they weren’t an im­ped­i­ment to com­mu­ni­ca­tion).

Again, the hid­den as­sump­tion is that unique cul­ture is im­ma­nent in lan­guage. It ain’t. Lan­guages sim­ply re­flect our phys­i­cally di­vided past. Lan­guage dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion prob­a­bly re­tards civil­i­sa­tion. Cul­ture, re­li­gion and ter­ri­tory mesh with lan­guage to ac­cen­tu­ate di­vi­sion.

Lan­guage is a bat­tle­ground Crys­tal can’t com­pre­hend. He ap­plauds the re­nam­ing of Bri­tish In­dian cities such as Cal­cutta and Bom­bay ( Kolkata and Mumbai), ap­par­ently un­aware that this is the hand­i­work of pro­foundly il­lib­eral sec­tar­i­ans.

Lan­guage fol­lows power and power, for the mo­ment, lies in the US. We all know that English is tak­ing over the world, but the world took over English long ago. English is 80 per cent for­eign: Latin, French, Hindi, you name it.

Check the DNA. It’s de­coded in the OED.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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