On the 1st of March, a bunch of students, including myself, had the most amazing opportunity to attend a live, virtual talk with the famous linguist David Crystal. He published one of his many books last year called “Let’s Talk” (I went and bought it straight away after this talk) and is one of the most hyped linguists in the UK. This event, to which around 300 people attended, was hosted by the English Society at the University of Sheffield and all entry fees were donated to charity.
Crystal began talking about how these virtual conferences are different to his usual gigs in huge halls. Revealing what it was like in the 1960s, we learnt that microphones were hidden in the audience to catch how speech is generally used without pressure. This is unethical now. So before the pandemic, Crystal would invite people to his house to speak into a microphone. He would get them to count to 20, then turn the microphone off and make casual conversation. But, you guessed it, he didn’t turn the microphone off. This method catches people’s language use when they aren’t under any pressure and it gives linguists the chance to explore language use in different situations. He joked that one man said “your turn to pay for the drinks” when they saw each other a few months later.
Another change in language that has come to light through virtual contact is simultaneous feedback. This includes laughing, the word ‘really?’ and the sound ‘mhm’. These are used to create vocal and visual feedback. We’re sitting alone staring at a screen, so this little piece of feedback helps to make conversation flow. Of course, it’s always difficult with lag, but it’s autonomous and provides fuel for the topic. Of course, people face the issue with trying to make online videos diverse for age, gender, etc… but do we ever really know someone’s ethnic background?
Without me giving too much away, as I want to encourage you to buy the book to learn more, we’ll now talk about a topic that applies to our generation. Slang. Colloquialisms. A common feature of our everyday language, whether spoken or written. “Ya’know,” “like” and “mind you” are all things we’ve said at some point in our lives. It’s almost impossible not to have done. These words allow us to engage in a natural, easy flowing conversation. However, when overused, they get in the way and could even create a different grammatical meaning. It’s the same with hesitations. We’ve all had that moment in life where we’ve just completely forgotten what we were talking about. It’s the most common sign of nervousness, but can also be seen as a clever use of language. The “filler” words, such as “erm” and “er”, fills the all consuming silence that people find awkward and distressing. Crystal then went on to do so, leaving us to wonder if we’d “lost connection” and he even joked that we could’ve thought he’d had a “heart attack.”
New words (also known as neologisms) and puns are frequently used in everyday language by you and me. Slang terms and words such as “thingy-majig” are proof of this. I mean, come on. Thingy-majig? How do you even use that in a piece of text (this article excluded)? Puns “ping-pong” around until they are found no longer funny or develop the name cliché.
Our very own English teacher Maisie Krebbs got one of her questions answered; “what advice do you have for any aspiring linguistics?” His response? Collect, collect, collect. Providing evidence, experimenting and collecting information is always a great place to start. Find your area of interest, delve deep into it and take it from there.
Many students absolutely loved this virtual talk. But of course, one of David Crystal’s biggest supporters David Green (Area Lead of English and Performing Arts and English Language teacher) also attended and many of us are sending our thanks to him for arranging this event for us. “What David Crystal does not know about the English Language is not worth knowing based on over 60 years’ research in the field. He is inspiring, a true performer and can talk on any language topic without a script,” added Dave, reflecting all of our thoughts on this inspiring man. Dave has had the incredible experience of meeting Crystal in person and has many of his books signed by this legend. As he quite rightly said, anything that Crystal has not focused on in his career is not worth knowing.
Thanks to David Green for providing us with this experience, our host Charlotte Harper and the rest of the team at the University of Sheffield, and obviously to the incredible David Crystal.
Journalism Internship Student.