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Review: Just a Phrase I’m Going Through by David Crystal

 

Image courtesy of Ebookee

 

Author: David Crystal

Publisher: Routledge

8 out of 10 stars

You have to admire the audacity of David Crystal – or his publisher – in using a pun to attract readers to his autobiography (which is subtitled, more conventionally My Life in Language). It’s a good thing Crystal has already written 100-odd respectably-titled books and entertained thousands of Brits on radio, or he wouldn’t have gotten away with it.

Crystal starts by giving us a lesson on what a linguist is: no, linguists don’t necessarily know lots of languages. He can ‘get by’ in several, but confirms what everyone who has tried another language knows: the grammar is easy enough to master, but the vocabulary is the killer. It’s a relief to hear someone obviously so lingustically capable admit this; it gives the rest of us an excuse for being so lousy.

As he goes on to explain, linguists, like many normal citizens, are fascinated in the way language works: the acquisition of language, sound production, and grammar are just a few of things linguists study. There’s more than enough juice in just one language to propel thousands of careers.

Many of which Crystal, it seems, has already had. After an uninspiring start in the new-ish field of linguistics at University College, London, in the late 1950s, Crystal has traversed many linguistics-related fields, from research assistant for the Quirk Survey of English Usage, lecturer, ESL teacher, writer, indexer, radio broadcaster, editor, and the creator of a taxonomy for organising the Web. He coined the term clinical linguistics, and more or less created theolinguistics – the study of the way people talk about God.

It’s Just a Phrase I’m Going Through is an entertaining read, and a delight for word geeks such as myself. Did you know that line breaks can affect children’s progress in

reading? Fascinating. And when Crystal rails – in the politest possible terms – against the dominance of prescriptive grammar, up with which he cannot put, I felt a kind of triumphant indignation.

This is very much an autobiography of a career, not a life – Crystal does not avoid his considerable personal tragedies, such as the loss of his son and his first wife, but rather expresses them, almost apologetically, in terms of his reduced productivity. This sounds callous, but after many years of compiling encyclopedias – another of his many careers – Crystal clearly knows how much can be covered well in one book: family joys and tragedies would not be done justice here.

Though Crystal’s career has been enormously impressive, this autobiography isn’t intimidating. For a generalist wordologist such as myself, disappointed by the disjointed career my love of words has produced, Crystal is an inspiration: you can follow as many paths as you want, put them all together, and call it a respectable career. Or perhaps, as with paronomania and other geeky word-play, it’s only grey-haired, esteemed academics who can be so frivolous.

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