Play with Dialects and Accents says Leading Linguist David Crystal

YOUNG children not be limited in the accents and dialects they use and hear, one of the UK’s leading linguists has said.  David Crystal, speaking to a packed audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, said that playing with different accents and dialects was as much part of a child’s early development as anything else and trying to limit their exposure would be counterproductive.

“It would be most unfortunate, I think, if people at that point started to jump in and said ‘no, this is right, that’s wrong’," he said. "When they get to school things change, because the whole point of school is to teach you to become a good citizen, able to communicate with everyone in a standard language and so on.  Not that local languages and local dialects should be denigrated, but so that one can switch from different styles and become masters or mistresses of language and all these variations. So it would be very sad if negativity crept in at an early age."

The linguist traversed the subjects of dialect and accent during his talk, going from 19th century academics collecting colloquialisms, to the impact of a popular 90s US show on the way teenagers spoke, and how the world increasingly speaks a different form of English from the one spoken in the UK.  

The author of more than a hundred books, Crystal discussed his two latest publications, You Say Potato, a book on dialects co-authored with his son, actor Ben Crystal, and The Vanishing Dictionary, which uncovers a treasure trove of lost English dialect words.  The latter, he explained, was an attempt to rescue a long-lost dictionary of some 117,000 English dialect words collated and compiled in the 1890s by the linguist Joseph Wright.

“He paid for it himself, but that’s the dictionary that’s disappeared, and that’s why my book is called ‘The Vanishing Dictionary,” he explained. “It shouldn’t be lost to knowledge this sort of amazing project. But the thing that really intrigued me was, are the words that he collected more than 100 years ago still being used, or have they been completely lost to us?”

Crystal also carried out a social experiment using the Festival audience, testing dialect words local to the Edinburgh area taken from Wright’s book to see if they were still in use or were familiar. Of the half-dozen tested, only 'footer-footer', “to walk in an affected, mincing way” had any familiarity.  

At the other end of the linguistic scale, Crystal recalled during the 1990s attempting to find why his son pronounced the word ‘schedule’ with a hard ‘c’, the American pronunciation rather than the standard English soft one. It led him to trawl through the scripts of The Simpsons and Friends looking for an occurrence of this word, but his investigations finally brought him to the show Northern Exposure, that his son loved, where he found word used in the US-form, giving him “real evidence of an American influence on Ben’s accent".

But turning to the globalisation of English, Crystal said that while it was the most commonly spoken language in the world, with some 2 billion speakers, the way it was being used outside the UK was beginning to diverge greatly. Those in the UK, he said, spoke using a rhythm and meter that was common to that used in Shakespeare’s time, using iambic pentameter, while overseas, what Crystal described as a “rat-a-tat-tat” rhythm dominated spoken English, something he said originated from the Caribbean. 

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