Saturday 31 January 2009

On not writing a book

There is a book reviewed in today's Guardian called Shakespeare on Toast, and if you look carefully you will see the paper says it is by me. Read on: 'a matey attempt to make Shakespeare relevant... Crystal, who is also an actor, paints in a lot of useful context... Crystal ends up admirably succeeding in his ambition to provide a toolbox for getting to grips with Shakespeare's plays'.

What a nice review. But people who know me must be a bit puzzled by this point. Matey? Actor? That doesn't sound quite right. And indeed, alas, no. The Guardian, once again, has lived up to its Grauniad reputation. The book was written by son Ben. You can see more about it at his website Shakespeare on Toast .

I know life is one long battle to stay ahead of your kids, but this is taking things a bit far. Ah well, maybe Ben will get his revenge one day. I expect the Guardian will assign my autobiography to him, in due course.

Sunday 25 January 2009

On holding a speech

An English teacher from Germany writes to ask: 'Do you hold a speech or give a speech'. He adds: 'I could have sworn it was give, but people claim to have seen hold a speech in newspapers'.

Indeed you will - and on the internet too, as you'll quickly discover if you type hold a/the speech into a search engine. What's interesting about these cases is that an adverbial of place or time seems to be obligatory. It's usually a place adverbial:

Obama will hold acceptance speech at football stadium with more seats.
Students hold free speech rally at Danish consulate.
Canadians Hold Free Speech Rally in Toronto.
Merkel opposed the Obama campaign's initial plan to hold the speech at the Brandenburg Gate.
the decision to hold the speech at Invesco was made two months ago.

Sometimes it's a time adverbial:

Sayyed Nasrallah to Hold Speech on Resistance Day.

And sometimes it's both:

Professor David Ray Griffin will hold a speech on 8 September 2006 in the Tropeninstituut in Amsterdam.

By contrast, give a speech is the norm when the focus is non-specific or where the adverbial gives further information about the topic.

Mike gave an excellent speech.
She gave a speech on the environment.

And of course, we can add adverbials of place or time to this:

Mike gave an excellent speech on the environment on Friday last at the Planetarium.

So the generalization seems to be something like this: give a speech is the more general usage; but hold a speech can be used where the focus is explicitly on the event rather than on the subject-matter. Without this focus, I find the usage dubious:

Mike held an excellent speech.

I think I could only use this if I meant 'the arrangements Mike made for the speech were excellent' - analogous to 'Mike held a meeting to talk about the environment' , 'I held a party and nobody came' (The Bee Gees), and so on. I'd be interested to know if others share this feeling.

Sunday 18 January 2009

On a disappearing dialect

Philip Holland has sent me a copy of his book Words of the White Peak. The subtitle explains: 'the disappearing dialect of a Derbyshire village'. I've talked about the importance of documenting dialects in this blog before, so I'm happy to bring it to the attention of readers.

The village is Earl Sterndale, just south of Buxton, in the Peak District. He was a dairy and sheep farmer for some 40 years, but the book describes him as many other things besides - hotelier, pianist, poet, and now lexicographer. The present collection came out of a three-year course in creative writing as a mature student at the Devonshire campus of Derby University in Buxton. It's never too late to become a lexicographer!

Dialect studies always start small and then grow fast. In the end Philip interviewed over 150 people to get all the words and phrases which form his dictionary. But, as he says in his introduction, it's more than a dictionary: it's also a memoir of his life and work on his farm. Many of the words are local farming words, such as beldering, for the bellowing of a bull, or blareting, for the bleating of a sheep. But there are also several general words, such as crozzled 'dried-out, burnt up, withered', and discourse phrases, such as choose 'ow (i.e. 'how'), added to a sentence to reinforce inevitability - 'the outcome would be the same whatever you did'.

You have to be careful, when you're reading a dialect book about a particular area. The words it contains simply illustrate what is used in that area. It doesn't mean that they're all unique to that area. Several of the words used in Earl Sterndale are found in other dialects of the British Isles, such as cack-handed 'clumsy', chuntering 'mumbling disagreeably', and nous, 'common sense'.

Dialects always overlap in this way. What we see in Earl Sterndale is a unique constellation of usages, some local to the area and some part of a wider dialect community. Every village would probably have its own voiceprint. The pity is that so few have been studied. Philip Holland's book shows what can be done.

You can find the book through Derbyshire bookshope, including shops on the Charsworth Estate and the Farming Life Centre in Blackwell, near Buxton, price £8.95. Also via the publisher, Anecdotes Publishing (

Wednesday 14 January 2009

On if and was/were

A correspondent writes from Poland about the use of was/were in conditional sentences. He was taught to say If I were, etc., and was advised that If I was, etc. was substandard. But he's noticed that grammars today seem to be saying the opposite. Some grammars say that was forms are normal and were forms are formal. Some say that the two forms are interchangeable. 'Are we in a sort of transitional period?', he asks. Maybe, he adds, were is used only in stock phrases, such as If I were you.

Yes, we have to get that one out of the way, for a start. There are a couple of expressions where the were is idiomatic - as it were is the clearest case, as it allows no substitution of was. Similarly, when the conditional is inverted, was isn't possible: I would like to go, were I not working. If I were you is slightly less fixed, as it's possible to say if I was you as an informal variant. This has become increasingly common in standard English over recent years, and it's the norm in many regional dialects. It isn't that if I were you is formal, though, in standard English; it's stylistically neutral.

This differs from the situation in the 3rd person singular, where the was form seems to be the neutral one these days, with were becoming more formal. But it's a grey area. I heard a discussion the other day which went something like this:

A If Jane was right for the part, I'd cast her.
B But that's the point. Is she right?
A Well if she were, I'd cast her, that's all I'm saying...

The stress fell heavily on were. If it weren't for the extra emphasis, one might say that here the two words were interchangeable. I suspect that A could just as easily have said If Jane were right.... On the other hand, I doubt whether A would have said, with emphasis, Well, if she was .... Phonological highlighting of the contrast seems to make a difference.

I'm not sure about this being a transitional period, though maybe the pace of change is hotting up. Usage issues of this kind were being discussed in Fowler, nearly a century ago. And indeed, you can trace uncertainty between was and were back several hundred years. What I think has happened is that the attitude of grammarians has changed. Formally they would give credence only to the formal options. Today they recognize that everyday usage includes both. A full discussion would need to recognize both a formal/informal contrast and a speech/writing contrast. Personally I (think I) use was as my norm in speech, reserving were for more formal contexts. In writing, I (think I) use were as my norm. I have to say 'think' as I don't use either all that often!

There's an excellent discussion of the various possibilities in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, pp. 86-8.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

On insults, or not

After the Christmas and New Year lull, word queries are back with a vengeance. But I wasn't expecting my first correspondent of the year to be a journalist from the Sun newspaper. Nor was I expecting my brief response to figure in those pages along with a picture. (And no, it wasn't on page 3, in case you were wondering.)

It was about Prince Harry and the eavesdropped use of Paki. What did I think of it all?

I suggested that a linguist would give a somewhat more measured reaction than the hysteria we've seen in the press. With potentially sensitive words, everything depends on the phonology and the pragmatics - in other words, how they're said and what the intentions are. A word said in a friendly tone is worlds away from the same word said in a belligerent one.

Establishing the intentions behind the usage is crucial. If everyone in the group uses the nickname, including the recipient of it, and everyone is comfortable with it, then anyone who peers in from outside and criticizes it must have their own agenda. Usually that agenda is pretty obvious (eg anti-monarchy), but the criticism is likely to be unpersuasive if it ignores linguistic realities. And certainly, judging by the opinions I've read in the various newspaper forums, most people haven't been persuaded.

I bet everyone has a story to tell like mine. When I moved to Liverpool from Wales back in the 50s, the kids immediately called me Taffy. I got so used to it that I would often introduce myself to new school acquaintances in this way. It was a rapport thing between us. Everyone had a nickname. And I was especially chuffed when the teachers used it to me. But not when a kid younger than me did. That was being cheeky.

Everything in language depends on the circumstances. Words are the messengers of intentions, and we should never shoot the messenger. Equally, we should always be alert to the possible impact our words might have on our listeners, and choose them well. Especially if we suspect there could be a newspaper reporter listening round the corner.

I thought that would be it. But no, today the Sun calls again. Apparently Prince Charles is in the firing line now for calling an Asian polo-playing friend 'Sooty'. It doesn't seem to matter that the friend has said that it was 'a term of affection with no offence meant or felt'. I find it a bit disturbing, I must say, when anyone with an axe to grind now seems entitled to tell us what we must have meant.

We know from the theoreticians of pragmatics that there's a useful distinction to be drawn between intended and actual perlocutionary effects, but this is usually discussed with reference to the effect of an utterance on the person(s) we are talking to. I'm not sure how the theory handles newspaper eavesdroppers, let alone the reactions of the readers of their reports. If there are people who, for whatever reason, hate a particular word, then this might influence our readiness to use the word in public situations, but should we allow them to have any influence on the way we talk in private? I've seen the argument this week that we should, on the grounds that to use a term like Paki even in private shows that the user has an undesirable mindset. This strikes me as being overly simplistic, but I'd be interested to hear some views.