Reading History: The Fight for English by David Crystal

One of my favourite poems in the English language is Six O’Clock News by from ‘Unrelated Incidents’ by Tom Leonard. Here it is in all its short, furious glory:

this is thi
six a clock
news thi
man said n
thi reason
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff. if
a toktaboot
thi trooth
lik wanna yoo
scruff yi
widny thingk
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
scruff tokn.
thirza right
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
spellin. this
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
thi trooth
yirsellz cawz
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.

A deceptively straightforward poem, in its short clipped lines, it is a coruscating riff on the place of accent in how we define class in the English language.

Our accents place us not just geographically, but in Ireland and in Britain, socially and culturally. As a kid, I knew that you made fun of people who went to what was then still a private school, Newtown School in Waterford, by saying the name of the school in the over-exaggerated way that it was imagined those schooled there spoke: Nootaunn. This was reverse accent and language snobbery in action. Knowing for most of my life almost no one who went to the school, I had no idea if they sounded like that, or if that’s how anyone who had ever gone through the gates of that famous Quaker school had ever in fact sounded. But I knew that when talking about Newtown you had to talk about Nootaunn. From early on in life, I learned that how you spoke and sounded impacted how people perceived you. Accent was a giveaway. It allowed others to place you.

When I got to college, I was acutely aware of this and so quickly adopted (and subsequently dropped) a bizarre version of the ‘posh’ Cork accent as a kind of defense mechanism. Language, and all its baggage – dialectical terms, accent –  I was learning in college, continued to be a means of placing and defining you. It sometimes seemed inside of UCC that having the right accent, and having gone to the right school were very important things indeed. Most people probably cared a lot less about my accent and the way I said things than I did, but I was very aware that I didn’t always sound like most of those around me who I met. A poem like The Six O’Clock News helps explain why that is perfectly.

My interest in poetry that took language as it was, in all its weirdness, inconsistency, malleability, that has persisted was sparked in the same years when my accent was more variable thanks to my awareness that in this new social context, among peers from different social backgrounds, my accent placed me – geographically but also socially and culturally. I got to meet some great people in those years who were interested in poetry that was experimental and innovative and playful when it came to spelling, accent, voice, dialects and more – the stuff of language that makes it most interesting. Without them I would have never heard of Tom Leonard, would never have heard or read the Six O’Clock News. Another important factor was studying English in my first year in UCC. Back then, just coming on ten years ago now – as part of First Year English, some of the course was given over to the field of linguistics. We were taught by Elizabeth Okasha. I must confess I don’t remember much about the actual lectures now, but Dr. Okasha’s lectures had one piece of required reading that helped to fundamentally reshape my entire understanding of the English language and was the start of a relationship with a writer which persists to this day. That required reading was The English Language by David Crystal. Although it would in time to come be replaced by The Fight for English as my favourite of Crystal’s books, it was in those lectures, and through this book I first encountered his take on the language. It was one which at the time to me seemed part of the same momentous shift in how I understood what poetry was and could potentially be. But The Fight for English is the David Crystal book which I would most strongly recommend to anyone to read.

Written in the wake of the popularity of Lynn Truss’ Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, Crystal in The Fight for English takes on not just Truss but many who came before her (and it will stand against many grammar obsessives who have surely come in her wake) who want to fix the English language in a particular time and place and say that this way of speaking, writing and using the language is the only correct one. If it is correct, it is because these are the people who wield the power to say what is correct and incorrect in a language – they are, in other words, the powerful; those closest to the centre of power whoo can say that their accent is “neutral” or that yours or mine is “regional”. The arbiters of taste and propriety since the eighteenth century. Luckily, Crystal’s book by taking a long look at the development of English as a language is capable of putting such nonsense to rest. It is vital reading for anyone who understands that language is a system that like all systems can exclude and attack those who do not control its reins. The English language is forever shifting and changing. The diversity of accents, the sheer number of loan words, the dialects of it, all point to the essential truth of Crystal’s book: English belongs to everyone not just self-appointed gate keepers. This truth is not one on which Crystal has ever reneged on in his writing since either, especially when you consider his book TXTNG: D GR8 DB8 which was a serious linguists early attempt to really understand what was happening in the development of text and online speech patterns, rather than dismissing them out of hand as infantile, or worse, illiterate.

The writing of poets like Tom Leonard, and the writing of linguists like David Crystal were vital in helping me understand that my accent, that the wordhoard which I inherited because of the place I was born, was an asset and not a liability. It was a rich social and cultural history in which to play, to discover and relate to my home. That goes not alone for the local but even the national. Without a book like The Fight for English, I would be ill-equipped in many conversations to argue what I always felt to be true. That language is not static. That we do have different voices, different lexicons upon which we call. That the variety to be found in English is part of what makes it so fun to learn, teach and create with. Not alone that, but by thinking about language in this way – who has access to writing it, having their voices heard on the page or through a recording devices – also has huge implications for how we understand the past and how we shape what eventually becomes history.

In the poetry of Tom Leonard, and others like him, once more the enormous condescension of posterity looms large. Such poetry is a pushback against that posterity.  This is something that David Crystal’s The Fight for English has taught me, and with each re-reading of it, continues to remind me of. There are few enough books that I will read in my lifetime from which I will take away so much.


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