Review by Liz Dexter
“What makes a successful conversation?” is a question David Crystal considers asking people in his new book – and, well, how would you answer that question?
David Crystal is a well-known writer and researcher on the English language, and is now Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. He’s published over 100 books (some of which he cheerfully admits in this book are now out of date) and he has been known during that time for embracing a descriptive rather than prescriptive attitude to language – i.e. he’s not one for fulminating about changes to English, but rather looks at where they’ve come from and what’s happening, enjoying the flexibility and development of our language. That fits well with my non-judgemental and supportive editing practice (you’ll never find me sharing funny pictures of menu slip-ups and I proudly consider myself NOT to be a ‘grammar Nazi’) so I’ve always enjoyed Crystal’s books and this one was no exception.
In a series of main chapters and shorter vignettes, we learn about what conversation is, and isn’t, about discussions on conversation that have been going on for millennia, about taking turns, not taking turns, what we talk about and how we talk about it. The shorter pieces include fascinating notes about topics from battle rapping to conversation cards shared in Victorian times and break up the text nicely – although it’s never heavy-going or overly academic: Crystal is sublimely good at making things readable and understandable.
Crystal takes a pragmatic approach to the study of language – looking at how it is actually used and the choices people make and why they make them: word choices, pronunciation, style and register choices, to name but a few, and these choices are discussed throughout the book. As part of this pragmatism, he spends some time describing how he captured a lot of the conversations used as examples in the book, in the 1970s in the main so using quite a low-tech set-up (he does address how conversation has changed and whether these are still valid). I do love these little personal touches that come into the book: at one point he worries about losing friends by enacting small linguistic experiments on them.
The book is very wide-ranging, taking in the development of conversation (or rather, the recording of it), literary representations of conversation, online dialogue and dialogue with e-assistants such as Alexa and Siri, and what can go wrong with various brain and health conditions or syndromes, as well as looking at the range of conversations from greetings through form sentences that keep things going to humour. New developments in the language of conversation are of course covered, as you’d expect them to be – he comes to the conclusion that his older tapes still work fine, but that we need to include those ‘fillers’ that are actually flexible and creative, the likes of “like” and “innit” (which we are simply not permitted to denigrate once he’s shown us why not to do do). The use of emojis is also discussed (he did publish a book on text speak, “Txtng: The gr8 db8”, but that was in 2009 so will be a bit out of date now; that had a similar interested and relaxed attitude to language development).
The sections on culture, which mainly covered topics to choose to discuss and had some amusing personal examples, and on when things go wrong, because of executive function issues or neurodiversity, were both fascinating and could perhaps have been a little longer and fuller – but the book can’t include vast amounts of detail on every topic. He does well to pull together a book that retains the reader’s interest and is informative without being full of jargon, and it’s certainly a good read I would recommend to anyone with an interest in language or conversation.
I read an advanced review copy, so I can’t commit to the additional matter being exactly as I state here when the book comes out. There’s an appendix containing the whole of a long conversation which is quoted quite a lot in the book, written out for analysis with its stops and starts and sections – not something you’d want to read through necessarily but very interesting in and of itself. A shortish bibliography covers the necessary bases and there’s a decent index.
Liz Dexter has never forgotten the happy hours she spent cutting bits out of teenage girls’ magazines when studying sociolinguistics as part of her degree. She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
David Crystal, Let’s Talk: How English Conversation Works (Oxford University Press, 2020). 978-0198850694, 224 pp., hardback