David Crystal

I was never in any doubt about which subject to follow at University – it had to be English, and it had to be a course where there was a language element alongside the literary. I very much wanted both. Apart from anything else, I had started to write primitive fiction, and I was a voracious reader of literature. I loved the set texts we had worked through. I had been to Stratford and seen several plays. I had to find a course which would give me a chance to develop both strands. The syllabus of the English Department at University College London was ideal, and I was lucky enough to be accepted, in 1959.

From a linguistic point of view, the first year was a virtual disaster. I studied Old English, Old Norse, Gothic, and several other fascinating languages, but they were taught in a curiously distant manner, as purely written texts. The nearest you got to speaking them was through a notion described as ‘sound changes’. I remember a dialogue with my tutor when I asked him how the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘king’, cyning, would have been pronounced. He basically refused to say, and gave me a mini-lecture about the antecedents of the high front rounded vowels of Old English. But I had already read the description: what I wanted to hear was how it all sounded – not just the vowel values, but the rhythms and rhymes as well. No-one would oblige. ‘We know very little about the phonetic realization of the Old English phonemes’, was the typical reply. John Dodgson was different, in his approach to linguistic history: he taught us about English place-names the best way, by arranging meetings in country pubs where appropriately oiled locals would be interrogated about the names in their vicinity. His course brought home to me the possibility that the history of the language could be made real. But on the whole, I felt my language interests slipping away during that first year. The matter was clinched when I followed an Introduction to Linguistics taught in the third term, in which we were taken through several of the classics at a rate of knots. The Meaning of Meaning, Saussure’s Cours, Bloomfield, and others, one a week. I understood little, and found it a million miles away from what I thought languages were about. The course was assessed by an essay, and I got a D – a fail. That clinched it. Literary options for me from now on.

But the history of the language class in the second year was obligatory. I remember sitting there not looking forward to it, when in came the lecturer, Randolph Quirk, and one hour later I was a born-again linguist. I can remember very little about that hour, except one thing. He spoke a sentence, then told us to write it down in phonetic transcription. We all looked at each other. What was phonetic transcription? We were harangued. How can anyone study language without being able to do phonetics? Anyone serious about it should get themselves over to the phonetics department and sign on for that option right away. This is what I had, without realising it, been waiting to hear. By the end of the day I was signed up. I found myself, a lone (it turned out) English Department emigre, in the hands of A. C. Gimson and J. D. O’Connor, in a tiny year of three students. The benefits from that small class-size, and the focused teaching (for timetable clashes with my colleagues meant that I was often on my own), were incalculable. By the end of my degree I wanted only to use my phonetics in some way.

That opportunity came through Quirk, who in 1960 was putting together the Survey of English Usage. I graduated in 1962, and – having followed every linguistic option I could find in my three years – had become something of a buff, with my superior phonetics knowledge at a high premium among my more literary-minded classmates (I exchanged it for hints about how to handle the nineteenth century novel). The UCL English Department turned out to be an excellent linguistic nurturing ground. It was home to the English Place-Name Survey, for example, and it had specialists in palaeography and stylistics, and nearby there were courses in comparative philology (Oswald Szemerenyi) and communication theory. I became a denizen of the linguistics section of the library, and revisited all the books I had found so difficult in my first year. Now that I knew some phonetics, Bloomfield began to make sense. I would never forget that lesson. Theory unrelated to practice can stifle the linguistic spark that I believe is within everyone. I have never met anyone who was not fascinated by some aspect of language –local accents, place names, children’s acquisition, etymologies.... The world is full of potential linguists, but it does not take much to put them off. Long before I encountered the phrase in Henry Sweet, I knew that phonetics was the ‘indispensable foundation’.

Quirk was looking for research assistants for his Survey, and I was one of two appointed that year. I arrived late, due to an unanticipated bout of TB which had kept me in a North Wales sanatorium for several months. (I had actually taken my finals in the san – including my phonetics oral, fortunately made possible by the nearby arrival on holiday of SOAS’s Eileen Whitely.) My role was indeed to use my phonetics – to develop the Survey prosodic transcription so that it would cope with the wider range of intonation patterms and tones of voice that the speech samples were bringing to light. Working closely with Quirk was a formative experience. It involved long hours intensively listening to a range of spoken styles on tape-repeaters, lengthy discussion of phonetic differences, and a parallel track of in-depth grammatical description and debate, as it became increasingly apparent just how different were the realities of everyday spoken English.compared with the traditional grammars on which we had all cut our teeth. I learned how to put a book together, as we slowly hammered out the approach which would be published the next year as Crystal and Quirk, Systems of Prosodic and Paralinguistic Features in English. Quirk was insistent that my name should be first, even though I was the least in his kingdom.

The Survey world opened innumerable intellectual doors. As a member of staff, albeit the most junior, I was made immediately welcome by those whom I had previously looked upon with studentlike awe. I got to know all the other phoneticians, at the time led by Dennis Fry, and a merrier bunch of academics I have never since met. Gimson asked me to write up the Survey approach for m.f. (le maître phonétique, distinctive at the time for having all its articles in phonetic transcription), and I reviewed the Daniel Jones memorial volume in its pages (which brought me a treasured thank-you card, in tiny spidery writing, from the great man). The Quirk postgraduate seminars were a high point of the week, attended by students from all over the world, and led by a variety of visiting scholars as well as himself. I learned my generative grammar from one of them, Jim Sledd, whose orientation to linguistics – best described as sceptical enthusiasm – has stayed with me. Michael Halliday was in town, at the time, and I worked through scale-and-category grammar, thinking it the coolest approach to linguistic theory I had so far encountered.

The Survey opened doors of opportunity, too. It gave me the chance to do some teaching, both inside and outside the University, and I realised I liked it, and was apparently quite good at it. I had my first EFL tutoring job, on the London University summer school. That was an intriguing, tempting world, with its immediate involvement with diverse cultures. Quirk pushed us to do some writing, whenever we could, and I found I liked that too. The Survey had to fight its way for recognition, and we all had a mandate to be clear and forceful in our explanations about language matters to the outside world. Invitations to lecture would come in to the Survey, and I would take my turn along with the others in responding to them. ‘What is linguistics and is it useful?’ was one of the commonest requests. As the person with the widest range of general linguistic interests in the English Department, I often found myself in the back of beyond, cobbling together an answer to this question. By the end of the year, I knew how to answer it, and had tried out the arguments on a variety of audiences. So, when I saw an ad for an assistant lecturer in linguistics at the University of Bangor, it seemed like a sensible move. But having been on the Survey for less than a year I was reluctant to go for it, feeling a sense of immense loyalty to Quirk. He was in no doubt. Go for it. I did – and later that year found myself the latest arrival in Frank Palmer’s group at Bangor.


Crystal, David, and Randolph Quirk. 1964. Systems of prosodic and paralinguistic features in English. The Hague: Mouton.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1916. Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library.

©The Philological Society and David Crystal. Edited extract from Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories. Edited by: Keith Brown and Vivien Law. Reprinted by kind permission of PhilSoc, the editors and the author.

This page last modified 14 May, 2020 by Survey Web Administrator.