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
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.