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A Chat With David Crystal

David Crystal's picture
Date:Feb 26, 2001
Topic:English as a Global Language
Duration:One hour



Prof. Crystal is the acclaimed author of over 40 books on languages and the English language, including Language Death, English as a Global Language, and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English language. He is honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. More ...

Transcript of the Chat

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to the sixth online chat at Wordsmith! Our today's guest is David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language and others books about language. The topic of today's chat is English as a global language.

Welcome, Prof. Crystal!

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
First, apologies to those of you who were waiting for me in December. Horrible computer glitch, but fortunately solved today.

Bingley -- Indonesia
Prof. Crystal, what do you think is the reason for prescriptive grammar arousing such strong feelings?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Language raises the strongest feelings in everyone. Accent and dialect differences in particular. And most people have something conservative inside them, which makes them always look back with regret to an imagined golden age. This turns up as prescriptivism in language. I think maybe everyone has a tiny bit of the prescriptivist inside them

Gillian Scotland
Hello David. Do you think the globalization of English diminishes language as a 'cultural tool'?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Hi, Gillian. Yes and no. On the one hand, the impact of English on other languages has been pretty disastrous in places - like all major languages which have travelled around the world. On the other hand, as we see English spreading, we see it beginning to reflect local cultural practices. When people adopt English they immediately adapt it. So there is a case for saying that cultural variation is being maintained, but in new ways.

pasargada usa
English is the new universal Lingua Franca. Isn't that an awesome burden?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Absolutely. And there are no real precedents to go on. We just don't know what happens to a language when it is spoken by so many people in so many places. A quarter of the world's population use English now. On the other hand, that means the burden is shared, to some extent. No-one 'owns' English now. What happens to it is on the shoulders of all of us.

Marilena Italy
Hello David, I'm reading your book "English as a Global Language". English is now the most important language, but the development of computer communication, artificial intelligence can replace this leadership?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Hello Marilena. It's very difficult to predict what AI will bring. My next book is on 'Language and the Internet' - it's not out until September, but when I was researching it last year, I learned two things. First, all the AI people tell me 'you ain't seen nothing yet'! Second, the Internet is ceasing to be a purely English-language medium, as it was when it started. I found over 1500 languages on the Net. And my estimate is that the Net is now down to about 65% English, and still falling. That's much lower than the figure I give in EGL.

Jack - USA
If English is to be considered a global language, why is there always a movement afoot to adulterate it here in the USA by allowing certain segments of our population to speak only their native tongues? A common language is the cement that keeps the arch of our democracy in place. David, your feelings on allowing the use of multiple languages in a country.

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
I know there is a confrontation on this one in the US, probably because the rate of change has been so rapid this century. But there isn't any need for confrontation. Three-quarters of the world's population are naturally bilingual. It's perfectly possible to maintain the role of a standard language as a lingua franca and at the same time maintain local languages - the standard guarantees intelligibility; the local expresses identity. In my ideal world, everyone would be bilingual, with the two languages being used for different purposes. I'm speaking from Wales, and Welsh is my other language - but I wouldn't use that in this chat room!

Rich USA
Why do so many of our British friends think that we Americans have changed the language (spelling, pronunciation) more than they have over the years. For example, we Yanks still use "gotten" where it has disappeared from British English. Canadian English pronunciation is closer to standard American than British but no one ever talks about Canadians corrupting the beautiful English language.

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Well I have no sympathy with people who identify change with corruption - and spend a lot of time, such as on the BBC, actively challenging that view. Change is inevitable and unstoppable. I think people react towards the US in this way because (a) it was the first part of the world to introduce so much change - from the beginning of the 1600s - and (b) because of an antipathy (?envy) of Americanization as a world phenomenon. When I did a bit of research on this a few years ago, I found just as much local distinctiveness in the UK as there is in the US. You have baseball. We have cricket. So it goes.

Gillian Scotland
Do you consider that as world economic change and countries such as India or China begin to dominate that English will lose its place as the only global language?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
If that happens, then yes. A language becomes a world language for one reason only - the power of the people who speak it. Power means political, economic, technological, and cultural power, of course. For historical reasons, English has achieved the position it has. But it could be knocked off its path if some major shift in world power were to take place. I think it's unlikely in the immediate future - but who dares predict very far ahead? Who would have predicted, 1000 years ago, that Latin would be negligible today?

ace7 - USA
In response to David's opening comment, I see these strong feelings of attachment to the use of language as it is - here, now. Just mentioning the title of the book, "English as a Global Language" has stirred up heated conversation among my family and friends.

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
I know. I've had a heated exchange or two myself just because i have said 'English is a global language'. When people see that they sometimes think I'm approving or expressing triumph in some way. As a Welshman, my personal feelings are, if anything, the other way! But the point is, it is a fact that English has achieved this remarkable position.

Lisa Z UK
Hello David. I am wondering how much of a threat you think on-line translation programs such as 'babelfish' are a threat to human translation. New programs are appearing all the time - how successful are they at, for example, translating idioms?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Not very, Lisa. They are quite good at communicating the gist of a sentence, and this can be very helpful. But I would say it will be at least 50 years before translation programs become so powerful that they will be able to cope with the semantics and pragmatics of natural languages. Once they arrive, then this will change the balance of linguistic power quite significantly. No need for a global language if we all have a Babel fish in our ears. But it's a very long way off.

esperant
Since there is a problem with communication worldwide, why not use Esperanto as a second language for all. it is easier to learn that any of the major languages.

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Esperanto was a brilliant idea. It was the most successful of about a hundred such languages which were devised around the same time. And it still has a great deal of use around the world. But the problem is that people vote with their feet - or rather, mouths and ears. English has achieved the position which Esperanto was arguing for - and despite the complexity of the language. If I was the God of language, I would not have chosen English to be the world language - because of its spelling, if for no other reason! But it has become so. It is all a matter of power. If people want access to the power that a major language can give them, they will learn it regardless of the complexity of the language.

Bingley -- Indonesia
Has the fact that you live in Wales influenced your work on language death?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Very much so. I've lived through a period when Welsh was on its way out, seen the activism which led to its turnaround - it now has two Language Acts protecting it, and a Welsh TV channel, for example - and now seen an upturn in the number of speakers, at the last census. So I do have a certain emotional sympathy which might otherwise have been lacking. On the other hand, the plight of languages which have only one speaker left, or very few, is nothing like the situation here in Wales. So I can see that there are many other stories out there.

INDIRA
Will the usage of Email all over the world impact on the language creativity ?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Yes, and for the good, I feel. All domains of the Internet -email, the Web, chat groups, and the fantasy games that people play - are introducing new styles and possibilities into the language. Every new technology does this. The arrival of printing brought an amazing range of new forms of expression. Broadcasting brought another. And now we have Internet technology, also adding a fresh dimension to language. And don't forget that e-mail is changing. It's only been around a few years, and it's original 'speedy language' - lacking punctuation, capitals, careless spelling - is now being supplemented by more formal e-mail writing. Many people write to me these days and begin 'Dear David', and so on, just like a letter. Its style is changing.

maverick
David, I got the overall impression from [I]The English Language[/I] that, whilst you were primarily telling the story of English by stressing the continuities from Caedmon to cosmonaut, you seem actually most interested in the fact that English is a story of perpetual change. For example, you point to the richness of vocabulary options engendered by successive collisions with other languages, including Scandinavian, French, and Latin - is it this [I]process[/I] that you think is the distinguishing feature of the story of English, a process of continually building upon a stable core language?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
I don't think English was ever stable, in the sense of changeless. When it arrived from Europe it was already three dialects melding together. Change and variation are at the heart of the process, I agree. English has always been one of the great languages of change - more than some others. It has been a vacuum-cleaner of a language, sucking in words from wherever it can get them. Over 350 languages have loaned words into English now. And today, with the Internet, the pace of change is faster than ever before. A new word introduced this morning will be around the world by evening.

Gillian Scotland
Local dialects have a lower status than standard languages. Do you think they deserve to be protected as actively as, say, Welsh or Gaelic?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
I do. The distinction between language and dialect is, after all, somewhat arbitrary. Ten years ago, in former Yugoslavia, people spoke dialects of Serbo-Croatian. Today, Serbian and Croatian are being pursued as different languages - and Bosnian, too. Some countries do actively support their dialects - in the UK, for example, we have the Yorkshire Dialect Society.

sooz
David, what do you feel is the success/impact of groups like France's Academie Francaise which struggles mightily to keep out mutations to French from English influence?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Very limited, I feel. Academies can never control a language. All they can do is identify trends and set up distinctions which people may then follow if they wish. A limited legal influence is sometimes possible - banning the occasional word, and so on. But the silliness of it is well illustrated by the fact that many of the words which the French are currently trying to ban are words that actually came from French into English in the first place!! English has borrowed tends of thousands of words from French over the centuries. And a word like computer, which the Academy does not like, is not an Anglo-Saxon word - it is from Latin.

Rich USA
So many of my French friends and family bemoan what they see as a one-way Anglofication of modern French. To show them that there is at least partially a two way street, I have compiled a list of several hundred (8 pages double spaced) of Frenchisms in modern American English -- from "au courant" to "voilĂ !)

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
That's very chic. Such elan. Absolutely. It is a fact of life that languages borrow from each other. And people who think that it does harm to a language have only to look at English, which seems to have gone from strength to strength despite its huge borrowing rate. It has changed the character of English of course, over the centuries - but that's inevitable.

majika
What do you think about the trend of accepting faults of international English?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Depends what you mean by a fault. When English settles in a new part of the world, local people adapt it, and may speak it with errors. Some of these errors then come to be used by everyone, including the most influential people in the country. At that point, even the native speakers in that country start using those 'errors' - and they cease to be errors anymore. For instance, 'gotten' was thought of as an error a long time ago - but not any more. And when I was in Egypt last year, I found everyone said 'Welcome in Egypt' - a usage which is now recognised in one of the English grammars published there. I would be cautious about accepting a change until there is clear evidence that it is really widespread - including its arrival in the written language. But such changes will always happen.

Lisa Z UK
Going back to what 'Sooz' said about the Academie Francaise, this is the only organisation of this kind that I know of. Are there others and for which language(s)?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
There are a couple of dozen, such as in Italy, Spain, Poland, Israel. They vary greatly in what they do - many organise valuable dictionaries, and the like. UK has never had one - though it was suggested in the 17th century.

pasargada usa
Of course there are, Liza. There is the ancient and respected Real Academia de la Lengua Espanola which puts back a bit of order in the Spanish spoken in Latin America. Only the Argentines spurn it, because they speak "Castillian", which is baloney. They speak Spanish with a lot of Italian, Genoese, Neapolitan, Sicilian, guarani, aymara, ketchwa and even Portuguese words.

majika
Yes, we have a few set to reserve Arabic!

Marilena Italy
Lisa in Italy we have the Academia della Crusca, it isn't agree about the spread of English or French words used in our mother tongue.

Judd, USA
Did any of your findings surprise you when conducting your research for Language and the Internet?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Yes - that there was so much variation. That there were so many languages out there, on the Net. And, most of all, that there seems to be a genuine new medium developing - something that is neither speech nor writing. In other words, the Net is giving us brand new ways of using language - such as the cutting-and-pasting effect you can do with e-mails.

Tony - Australia
OK - so we're now in the year 2101, and English has no more languages left to borrow from because it has powerfully permeated the globe. Ecologically we now know that diversity is critical for environmental health. Likewise, the creativity and innovation (social, economic, technology, political) that has been seeded by the world's diversity of cultures coming into contact with each other. The future is not inevitable - we can now be more conscious in our choices. A McDonald's world ain't that appealing. Is and English speaking, with all of a language 's power to "see" meaning, any more desirable. Do you see a problem when this cultural and linguistic diversity disappears?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
I believe in the fundamental value of diversity, as an evolutionary principle. Half the languages of the world are likely to die out in the next 100 years - and if this happens it would be a true intellectual disaster. The world is a mosaic of visions, expressed through language. If even one language is lost, it is awful.

maverick
And what about that other old favourite of the prescriptivists in every age - spelling reform! Will the main lingua franca of your "bilingual in English" model become simplified by mere fact of usage and abusage?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
I think you may be right. Spelling is slowly standardising. The main trend is for US spelling to influence UK spelling. Words like encyclopedia and fetus are increasingly encountered in the UK now. It will take a long time, and there may be a reaction - indeed, there is bound to be. It will all depend on whether value the 'identity' function of the different spellings more than the 'intelligibility' function of a common system. But artificial spelling reform, in the sense of a legal decision, is unlikely to succeed. We've recently seen in Germany how difficult that process can be.

Atnes - Slovenia
Professor Crystal, do you think that a 'lingua franca' of such an impact as is the case with English today can seriously threaten languages of limited diffusion - languages spoken by a relatively small number of people?

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
Yes - this has already happened in Australia and North America, where most of the indigenous languages have gone down under the English steamroller. But it isn't just English. In South America, Spanish and Portuguese have been the steamrollers. Any powerful language is a danger. Which is why smaller languages need our respect and often protection.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
That was our last question for today. Thanks to all who participated, and asked questions, even if we couldn't field your questions due to limited time.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Thank you, Prof. Crystal, for being our guest at Wordsmith.org. We hope to have you again to discuss your work on the book Language and the Internet when it is released. And thanks to all the linguaphiles for participating in.

David Crystal (Guest Speaker)
My pleasure. Thanks to all for your interest.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
We look forward to your comments on today's chat. Please send your feedback to (words AT wordsmith.org) on how you enjoyed the chat and how we can make it better. Thank you.

bridget
Thank You, Anu and Prof. Crystal

Atnes - Slovenia
Thank you, Anu and Professor Crystal!

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Our next guest is language-and-humor author, Richard Lederer. This chat takes place on Mar 26, 2001. We hope to see you all there.

Ruth Joan USA
Thanks to both of you for providing us with a great hour of interest.

majika
THANK YOU! ANU and Prof.

pasargada usa
It was really marvelous! Professor Crystal is a darling Emcee, teacher, psychologist, politician, all rolled in one.

Marilena Italy
Thank you Anu and Professor Crystal!!!

Gillian Scotland
Thank you. I found it all very interesting.

Dick
This was my first visit to Wordsmith's Online Chat (and any other chat). It was fascinating. I'm glad to have lived to long! Now that I understand the process, I look forward to other chats. Thanks, Anu.


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