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Interview: David Crystal, linguistics scholar and writer on the English language

10 November 2017

‘The beauty of linguistics is that it crosses the divide between arts and science’

Growing up in a bilingual community in North Wales triggered my curiosity about languages, reinforced by learning some Latin to serve mass, studying French, Greek, and more Latin in secondary school, and then taking up a range of English-related languages, such as Gothic and Old Norse.


I was at a primary school in Holyhead and then went to one of the Christian Brothers’ secondary schools in Liverpool, with Vincent Nichols, John Burt, Roger McGough, Laurie Taylor. It was tough — they were very, very strict as far as punishment was concerned — but I remember those days with nostalgia, fear, and delight.


After school, I took courses at university in comparative philology and encountered a wide range of languages in a phonetics course. I became enthused by the teaching, which focused on the history of the English language, and through reading the available texts in linguistics.


I married Hilary, and we had five children, one of whom died. He was a little lad who was born with a serious heart defect. I left the full-time university world in 1984, in the era of Thatcher cutbacks, and became a freelance linguist. We’ve lived in Holyhead since then, though we’re only occasionally there. Lecturing in various places keeps us on the road for some 200 days a year.


My career has coincided with the development of linguistics as an academic subject in the UK. So a great deal of my writing has been to introduce the subject to students and to a general audience, beginning with Linguistics, Language and Religion in 1964, and continuing with the Penguin Linguistics, and later the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and Encyclopedia of the English Language. I was critically involved in the emergence of several new fields of the subject — specifically, theolinguistics, clinical linguistics, and Internet linguistics.


Theolinguistics is the application of linguistics to theology. The 1960s was a remarkable time in church history, with people such as John Robinson trying to replace the language of God as “up there” with “down here” or “within”, and the Vatican Council bringing in the vernacular, Ayers, Logical Positivism, Paul Van Buren, Series 1 and 2.


I didn’t invent the term (some Belgian guy did), but it made a lot of sense, and we started a journal, Theolinguistics. It is still going on, but has shifted focus, and never attracted the interest in Britain that it did in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. But James Barr wrote a book on semantics of the Bible which was eye-opening, and the issues still arise. The new translation of the mass uses more Latin-based language, and an awful lot of people are asking why.


Internet linguistics analyses text messages, new abbreviations, how internet uses language to communicate widely, to advertise, to do searches without all sorts of irrelevant hits. With advertising, an innocuous page of children’s clothing was suddenly linked to paedophile sites. That was stopped, but it needed a very detailed linguistic analysis of the sites.


I don’t recognise a distinction between the technical and aesthetic study of language. The beauty of linguistics is that it crosses the divide between arts and science. I can be studying phonetics in the morning and Shakespeare in the afternoon; or, as in my book on John Bradburne’s poetry, bringing together technical stylistic analysis and literary criticism. I’m sad you didn’t enjoy linguistics. You haven’t read the right books or had the right teachers.


I’ve greatly enjoyed the writing of Steven Pinker, and Randolph Quirk was an early influence.

I remember my baptism, when I was about six, and was very excited about it. The reason for this late baptism was a consequence of an unusual parental marriage situation of [Roman] Catholic and Jew. My parents met in 1939, and, though neither family approved, they married; but my father went off to war, divorced my mother, and married an Israeli lady. I didn’t know about him for some 40 years — I met my dad when I was in my forties. My mother eventually made her peace with her Catholic family, and that’s why I was baptised.


My half-brother, Michael, got in touch with me in 1990, having achieved greatness in the legal profession, and both of us ending up in Who’s Who. We get on very well. Through Michael, I met my dad. Our children (our sons are both named Ben) are the best of friends.


I was involved in Catholic chaplaincy activity in London and Bangor, and then helped to set up the chaplaincy in Reading. I advised the International Committee on English in the Liturgy in the 1960s, and reviewed for various periodicals, such as The Tablet and the Church Times. In Holyhead, I did other freelance work, including the training of Readers in liturgy, and dramatic presentations — chiefly of St John’s Gospel — and I’ve published two books of devotional poetry.


My work on Bradburne’s poetry came as pure serendipity — or it was God’s doing. An old friend showed me a verse letter from John. I naïvely asked: “Is there any more like that?”, and a few weeks later a suitcase of poems arrived. As a poet, with my background in English language and literature, and the experience of online databases from my Internet work, I was the obvious person to create an online database of his poems.


I wasn’t expecting it to take so long: it took more than a decade. And it isn’t over: new poems keep surfacing. Just the other day, I added two new items, found in a drawer by one of Bradburne’s correspondents.


As I say at the beginning of A Life Made of Words, the fact that Bradburne is the most prolific poet in the English language intrigues everybody, and so a general account of the poetry was the obvious need. Nobody else had done this, and, as the person who knows the poems most intimately, I was the obvious person to write such a book.


Given where I live and was brought up, the sound of the sea is the most reassuring sound to me.


When I’m not working, I like anything non-verbal. I listen to music a lot — cinema, too. I also founded an arts centre here in Holyhead, and I’m involved in running that.


I pray every day, and at unpredictable times. At the moment, for Bradburne’s cause for beatification to succeed. I suppose it’s his combination of humanity and abstract awareness: the two things come together in him in a way that I haven’t seen in a literary context at all. If you compare him with Gerard Manley Hopkins, most commonly cited, can you tell anything about Manley Hopkins as a human person from his writings — the everyday things that matter? Do you learn that he helped a beggar on the streets? No, you don’t. In Bradburne’s work, you get a balance between his concern with God and the eucharist, and the care for lepers on the other.


If Bradburne’s a saint, he’s a very human saint. He says: “I hope I do get to sainthood, because if a wretch like me can be a saint, then anyone can.” He thought of himself as completely unworthy. He writes accounts of the lepers, standing up for them, talking about the difficulties he had in doing that because he wouldn’t let anything get in the way of his care. People said he shouldn’t spend so much time and money, and he wouldn’t leave them, even though they said he would be killed — and he was.


Is there any other poet in English literature who tells us that he’s constipated? That’s the appeal: he was an ordinary guy, but he did extraordinary things. And the insights that he gives us into the Trinity, Mary, the eucharist — profound thoughts.


I can’t remember the last time I was angry. Upset, sure, at so much tragedy in the world. Irritated, often. But anger is a waste of time and energy.


My faith is what makes me happy. I’m glad I haven’t lost it, unlike most of my academic friends.


The New Testament gives me hope for the future. “I shall be with you all days”; “Do not let your heart be troubled”; and so on and so on.


If I could choose any companion with whom to be locked in a church for a few hours, it would be Shakespeare, definitely.


Professor David Crystal was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


A Life Made of Words is published by Crystal Books, available from www.davidcrystal.com.

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