Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Crystal Clear on Language and Literature

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd July, 2013

David CrystalWhen I was a boy there were two types of English: British and American. In England there was an attempt to wipe out regional accents and dialects (as a Lancashire lad, I was given elocution lessons, to speak all BBC. Shudder). And in Wales, where I spent a lot of weekends and holidays, there was an attempt to wipe out Welsh too. How times have changed! Over the past four decades or so a whole family of Englishes has developed round the world, from Jamaican to Singlish, and many more in between, and even the BBC these days celebrates regional and ethnic diversity. This subject was inevitably touched on by Professor David Crystal, when he gave the opening lecture to a week of studies for translators and people involved in the publishing industry at Birkbeck College today. I draw heavily on his English as a Global Language (Cambridge University Press, 2003) in the relevant module of my own Humanities course at SOAS, and I have enjoyed watching videos of some of his lectures. So it was a great pleasure to see him perform in the flesh — and perform he does, seated on a high metal backed chair, rather like the 1960s/1970s Irish comedian Dave Allan, sparkling in his fluency, playful and witty. His lecture was entitled “Language -blank- Literature” and he used well-chosen extracts from the works of William Shakespeare, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard to illustrate how writers can bend and break the rules of English (having first grounded themselves fully in the language). He naturally also paid homage to James Joyce. I asked him in the Q&A afterwards how he could reconcile precision with intelligibility, citing the jargon of Brussels Euro-speak — an English laden with foreign borrowings and obscure terminology that is alienating to most ordinary Brits. And I say that as someone who is deeply pro-European. Prof Crystal replied that what was needed is something like the Plain English campaign that has resulted positively in the UK in making HMRC and others phrase forms and letters in ways that make sense to any man or woman in the street, more user-friendly. At the reception after the lecture — kindly sponsored by Europe House — he (and therefore subsequently I) was informed that there is such a group or movement already in existence, called “Clarity”. I shall investigate!

Link: http://www.davidcrystal.com

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