Crystal on the Multiplicity of the English Language

David Crystal examines the prominent rise of the English language and discusses the variations in formal and informal written and spoken word that shape identities and social relations all over the world.

[T]he standard language is not a homogenous phenomenon, internally consistent throughout in the way it uses pronunciation, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and patterns of discourse. The common impression that such consistency exists, within an English-speaking community, derives from the fact that most of the written English we see around us is formal in character. It is English on its best behavior. When people compose books, articles, brochures, signs, posters, and all the other forms of printed English, they try to ‘get it right’, often employing personnel (such as copy-editors) or manuals (such as guides to house style) to ensure that the language does conform to the standard. The same applies to people who speak the standard professionally, such as radio announcers, political spokespersons, university professors, and courtroom lawyers. The closer they can make their spoken style conform to the written standard, the less they will attract the criticism of being ‘careless’, ‘lazy’, or ‘sloppy’. The public language that we hear and read is therefore characteristically at the formal end of the spectrum.

And a spectrum there is, within Standard English. Variation is everywhere. Even within the formal domain, there is variety. Lawyers, clerics, politicians, doctors, dons, radio announcers, scientists, and others, even when communicating as carefully as they can, do not all talk and write in the same way….

[A]t the other end of the spectrum, informal Standard English has been much neglected. What happens to the speech of radio announcers in the BBC canteen? How do politicians talk when they meet up for a drink? Do university professors on a foreign tour use the same language in their postcards or emails home as they do in their lectures and articles? Do off-duty copy-editors never split their infinitives? As soon as we begin to ask such questions, it is plain that there is another world here, waiting to be explored. …

The more options we have, within the formal-informal spectrum, the more we feel ready to meet the needs of a complex, multifaceted society. With clothing, a diverse wardrobe enables us to dress to suit the occasion; and so it is with language. The more linguistic choice we command, the more we find ourselves able to act appropriately as we move from one social occasion to another. It is obvious that anyone who lacks the ability to express English formally, with control and precision, is at a serious disadvantage in modern society. But the opposite also applies: anyone who lacks the ability to handle the informal range of English usage is seriously disadvantaged, too. …

To have only one style at our disposal, or to lack a sense of appropriateness in stylistic use, is disempowering and socially disturbing. Not only are we no longer in control of the situation in which we find ourselves, we soon discover that stylistic ineptitude is the first step on the road toward social exclusion. …

The point applies to all cultures and to all languages, but it is especially an issue in the case of a language like English, which has developed so many nuances of formality and informality in the course of its long, socially diverse, technologically influenced, and increasingly global history. The more we understand these nuances the better, so that we can use them appropriately upon occasion, and also respond appropriately when others use them. Being in control also means that we can switch from one style to another, in order to convey a particular effect. …

No account of the history of English should ignore the whole of the language’s formality range, but the informal levels have been seriously under-represented in the traditional accounts, partly because they have been so much associated with regional dialect speech. For centuries of language pedagogy, formal English has been lionized and informal English marginalized—often penalized, using such labels as ‘sloppy’ or ‘incorrect’. But the more we look for informality in English linguistic history, the more we find it, and moreover in contexts which have an unequivocal literary pedigree. It is yet another story which is waiting to be told. …

One of the most important trends within the evolution of English during the second half of the twentieth century has indeed been the emergence of new standard usages within the world’s English-speaking communities, as well as of new varieties of nonstandard English within those communities, many of them spoken by ethnic minorities. At the same time, older regional varieties which had previously received little attention outside their own country of origin, such as the English of the Caribbean, South Africa, or India, have come into international pubic prominence, especially through the medium of creative literature. Their stories are important, too, for they are stories of emerging identity. …

Identity, of course, is a much bigger notion than geography. The answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ cannot be reduced to ‘Where are you from?’, though that dimension is undeniably critical. There are many possible answers, such as ‘I am a doctor’, ‘I am a Sikh’, ‘I am a teenager’, or ‘I am a woman’, and each of these identities exercises an influence on the way the speaker uses language—or has used language in the past. New standards, non-standards, informalities, and identities…the real stories of English, which have never, in their entirety, been told.


Crystal, David. The Stories of English. London: Penguin Books, 2004, pp. 7-11, 13-14. || Amazon || WorldCat


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