David Crystal’s Just a Phrase I’m Going Through
Posted by Neal on June 26, 2009
In Just a Phrase I’m Going Through: My Life in Language, David Crystal recounts his development as a linguist, starting with his childhood in a mixed Welsh, English, and Irish community, and ending with his current status as an independent linguistic consultant, public speaker, entrepreneur, and author. In between, he tells about his teen years in Liverpool, his college years at University College in London, his time in the faculty of the University of Reading, his various endeavors in fields of applied linguistics (including teaching English as a foreign language, speech therapy, and helping with the English translations of the Catholic Mass following the Second Vatican Council), his retirement from academe, and his experiences with radio and television.
The book is made up of three kinds of material. The kind that will be most entertaining to linguists is his funny stories about linguistics, drawn from fifty-plus years of anecdotes about his experiences with language. Indeed, these parts will be interesting even to nonlinguists who have never heard of David Crystal. Some of my favorites:
- working on Randolph Quirk’s comprehensive survey of English grammar, and getting a call from someone claiming to represent a shoe store in need of some adjectives for an upcoming ad campaign (which reminded me of the article in The Onion in the late 1990s about Bill Clinton authorizing a massive vowel drop over Bosnia)
- trying to slip the rarest grammatical constructions into casual conversations with Quirk, one favorite being the progressive passive (e.g. is being done, or my favorite, will have been being done)
- brilliantly managing to record un-selfconscious speech samples from people who know they have microphones in front of their faces — thanks to an idea that has resulted in it being “his round” in perpetuity when he finds himself in a pub with any of these people
- meeting with a venture capitalist as a novice in the business world, and explaining his exit strategy when pitching a pre-Google search engine
Second most interesting in my opinion, but perhaps ranking first for others, is the biographical material that isn’t primarily about linguistics; for example:
- discovery of, and eventual reunion with, his father
- playing in a band during his late high school years
- meeting his future wife
- having children
- deaths of close family members
The third kind of material is the history of Crystal’s professional life, and at times can read like a really fleshed out resume: He had these duties, taught these classes, took on these projects, founded and/or edited these journals, etc. These parts are likely to interest only those who already have an interest in David Crystal. If you have wondered, as I have, how Crystal manages to write so many books, and how he developed into the independent, entrepreneurial linguist that he is today, here is your answer. Otherwise, you may find yourself skimming these parts. Even so, the story about how he decided to take the university’s offer of early retirement is funny in the tradition of Dilbert comic strips and the PhD webcomic.
Crystal has a gift for dramatic phrasing in his stories, as in this cliffhanger at the end of chapter six:
I turned up for the obligatory course on the history of the language with gloomy anticipation. Linguistics was a receding dream.
Then the doors of the Foster Court lecture room burst open, and Randolph Quirk walked in. (p. 82)
Even when not telling a story, Crystal has an entertaining way of talking about linguistics. Regarding later stages of language acquisition:
The early teens is a crucial period for language development. It’s a time when the child explores a vast number of linguistic worlds, and builds up a lexicon for talking about sex, politics, music, TV programmes (radio, in my day), sex, woodwork, stamps, sex, cars, boats, trains, planes, sex, and a great deal else. (p. 23)
Apart from being a delight in themselves, grandchildren are a blessing to a linguist, for they allow language observation without parental responsibility. (Plate 8.3)
Elsewhere, Crystal talks about how the best way of hearing natural language from one’s informants is over a few pints in a pub, but it’s hard to get grant money for beer. Solution: A line item for “elicitation materials”.
Linguists may also find portions of Just a Phrase interesting for reasons not intended by Crystal. I was struck by his preference for the sentence “And so it proved to be”, following a hypothesis or prediction he had made. I also noted the verb therap, meaning “to do therapy exercises with a patient”, backformed from therapy: “to therap knowing that on the other side of the window was a group of professionals … scrutinizing your every move!” (p. 185). Plus an instance of reanalysis: “the editor … went through it with the kind of toothcomb that only phoneticians use….” (p. 117) Aha: [[fine-tooth(ed)] comb] reanalyzed as [fine [tooth comb]]. (Actually, I’ve learned there is such a thing as a toothcomb. According to Wikipedia, it’s “an anatomical structure found in certain prosimians,” consisting of “long, flat forward-angled teeth, including the two lower incisors and the canine teeth.”)
Overall, Just a Phrase is a fun and informative look at life from a linguist’s point of view.