Oration honouring David Crystal
Fall convocation Friday, Oct. 21
In his book on the King James Bible, David Crystal reports that "English, the word-borrower par excellence, has been described as the great whore of all languages." If we accept that characterization of our tongue then we are obliged to view our candidate as its pander or, to use a more impolite term, its pimp. A language pimp, decked in robes of scarlet on the stage of an academic institution – is this, Chancellor, in any way appropriate to our honourable occasion? It is. It is in light of our own history and Dr. Crystal's distinction. Words are in fact the ornament of this university for we celebrate the Dictionary of Newfoundland English as our greatest achievement and George Story who led the project as our preeminent scholar. And the linkage is closer for when we established the George Story memorial lecture in 1999, it was Dr. Crystal whom we asked to be our first speaker. An encyclopedic encyclopedist and noted linguist, David Crystal is a man impatient of the academic world's small battles for he left the university during the thoughtless cuts of the Thatcher regime a generation ago to become a proselytizer for language and linguistics -- not exactly a sound basis for a career change. But David Crystal is the consummate public intellectual, one who happily engages in controversies over hybridized language, prescriptive grammar and, most recently, texting. Beyond that he has developed a web search engine, been a television writer and presenter and created his own business enterprise. He has been remarkably successful in making a life of language and bringing it to the world. However, for all his acumen he does not always get it right. As one of the consultants for Lynn Truss's radio program on punctuation, he dismissed the notion that the program could ever be converted into a book. "Books on punctuation never sell," was his magisterial judgment. Not quite, it sold three million copies. If we have problems with our colons or our periods, Eats, Shoots, Leaves is the book to which we, flouting the authority of Dr. Crystal, all turn for advice. Much like the grammar guides of former days, Truss takes a prescriptive approach and has been much criticized by those of more liberal tendency, Crystal among them. He describes her approach to punctuation as Trussian, with its echo of Prussian rigidity. But his role as the High Lord of Language is one he wears lightly. He tells the tale of a minister of the British crown, Lord Chesterfield, who was so disturbed by the confusion in the world of words in the 18th century (a plethora of spellings, a miasma of meanings, a gabble of grammar) that he was prepared to submit to a dictator -- to the lexicographer who would lay down the rules for words. That dictator was the great Dr. Johnson who, single handedly, wrote the first English dictionary. And then Crystal remarks quietly that "People who would never dream of allowing themselves to be ordered around in other walks of life are prepared to bow meekly when a language expert speaks." So expert is he that he has had to become accustomed to much bowing and scraping. Indeed, it is why we are gathered here today to confirm him in his dictatorship, to do reverence to his authority in things lexical -- except the marketing of books. He has become what the Romany would call a lavengro, a word master, aware of all the possibilities of our words, our dialects, our languages but, in truth, no dictator for he rejects the prescriptive role seeing language as an evolutionary, organic feature of humankind. A sharply informed thinker, he is also a powerful clarifier and so brings the debate fully into the public forum extending knowledge of what are often viewed as arcane topics. As author or editor he has been involved in the production of more than 100 books including the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, the Cambridge Biographical Dictionary, the Cambridge Factfinder and the New Penguin Encyclopedia. He has also founded and edited several linguistics journals and was editor for both Penguin Linguistics and the Blackwell Language Library. A fellow of the British Academy, he is also an officer of the Order of the British Empire. In recognition of his long, lively and learned role in the development of language studies, Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of letters (honoris causa), that great ludic linguist, David Crystal.
To read David Crystal's convocation address,
please visit www.mun.ca/gazette.