Lead book review

How do we greet one another today?

Conversation is a fascinating subject, says Philip Hensher – but very few people get it right

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

27 June 2020

9:00 AM

Let’s Talk: How English Conversation Works David Crystal

OUP, pp.224, 18.99

One of the most striking, and lowering, aspects of lockdown has been the deprivation of human exchange, and especially conversation. We can talk to our immediate families but not properly to a wider range of humanity. The Zoom chat, with so many ordinary conversational features removed, is not the same thing at all. Conversation is fundamental to what we think of as our being, and I don’t believe we could go on long without it.

In view of how vital it seems to be, it’s strange that we rarely consider it seriously. About its main substance — the words used — we make all sorts of assumptions, many of which turn out to be wrong. I teach creative writing, and one of the first things novelists have to learn is that much of the dialogue in fiction rests on absurd and unfounded beliefs. People in life, unlike in books, don’t generally use each other’s names in speech unless they’re trying to sell them something. Nor do they change the subject with sentences beginning ‘Anyway…’ The word is usually reserved to cover a momentary embarrassment.

Some novelists have a naturalistic ear for dialogue, such as Henry Green in the 1930s:

‘Them girls is terrible I reckon,’ he said. ‘Trouble enough many of us ’ave had to get here without they refuse to serve you.’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it’s quite all right now, thank you.’ Others, such as his contemporary George Orwell, believed that people might talk like this:

‘My dear Dorothy,’ said Mr Warburton, ‘your mind, if you’ll excuse my saying so, is in a morbid condition. No, dash it! It’s worse than morbid; it’s downright septic. You’ve a sort of mental gangrene hanging over from your Christian upbringing.’

People’s theories about conversational style are so impregnable, and often so entirely mistaken, that the real substance of talk is an extraordinarily interesting subject. Someone ought to write a good book about it.


David Crystal’s study of ‘how English conversation works’ immediately demonstrates that false ideas about English conversation aren’t limited to inept or debut novelists; they can belong to professors of linguistics too. He begins with the belief that when people meet they say ‘Good morning’, or, later in the day, ‘Good afternoon’ or ‘Good evening’. But they don’t. No one now says ‘Good morning’ outside a very rigidly professional context. At most you might say ‘Morning’, but otherwise use a rich variety of greetings — ‘Hey!’ ‘Darling!’ ‘Hi!’ ‘Dude!’ ‘Wotcher’ (ironic)! ‘Look at you! ‘Y’all right babe?’ (my lovely neighbour, just now) and so on. You might say ‘Good evening’ to the maître d’ showing you to your table, but to the friends already sitting there, never.

It’s curious to make this confident point about English conversational usage without having some evidential basis. Crystal’s main piece of support is the first chapter of The Hobbit. But even if novelists’ renderings are to be accepted as evidence, Tolkien could not be regarded as any kind of guide to English speech (‘You are a lady beautiful, I deem, beyond even the words of the Elven-tongue to tell’).

There are some very curious claims about conversational style presented here as universal or standard in English. The ‘tag question’ — as in ‘They are revolting, aren’t they?’ — and the intensifying adverb — ‘It can get fearfully dull’ — both derive from a very particular dialect in English, and may (unsuspected by Crystal) be getting rarer. It’s surprising to read that the idea that conversations are ‘full of questions’ is ‘a myth’. Of course conversation isn’t  a catechism, but it is very common indeed to hear a series of questions answered with other questions. A sequence from Harold Pinter (incorrectly characterised by Crystal as a ‘quick-fire question-and-answer exchange’) gets the question-question-question sequence exactly right:

‘What were you doing yesterday?’
‘Yesterday?’
‘And the day before. What did you do the day before that?’
‘What do you mean?’

As you read on, the number of things that Crystal claims about ordinary conversation seem so full of unexamined assumptions that it becomes necessary to study his sources. His book turns out to be largely based on a collection of recorded conversations that he made around 50 years ago (he directs us to his website). A brief reference is also made to a set of more recent American recordings, but largely to confirm his conclusions.

Listening to them, many problems become apparent about their value as a primary source. They are largely limited to upper-middle-class users of standard English and are heavily skewed towards allowing talented conversational performers to produce a good anecdote. Not just the social attitudes, but the usage, seems remote from us now; two of the conversationalists discuss, with serene amusement, incompetent women drivers and something apparently known as ‘Paki-bashing’ even among the polite.

It’s absurd to use this resource in preference, for example, to the rich findings of the British Library’s online Listening Project, which has recorded more than 1,000 lengthy conversations of speakers from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. The limitations of Crystal’s inquiries are suggested by his comparing the new invariant tag ‘innit’ with the French ‘n’est-ce pas’. The Indian language invariant tags, such as the Bengali ‘ha’, is a much more likely source, which surfaced in second-generation immigrant communities and first gained popularity, I think, from the television sketch show Goodness Gracious Me.

To find so jejune a book being published on such a large and interesting subject is extremely disappointing. If a bibliography contains only eight full-length books, four of which are by the author, the thinness of argument and observation is inevitable. By the time Crystal had got round to explaining that an important point is made when ‘William Makepeace Thackeray addresses [it] directly in Framley Parsonage’, and that ‘the balanced approach [advocated] certainly worked for Thackeray, who was described by contemporaries as a brilliant conversationalist’, I had more or less given up on the idea of his providing reliable evidence. (Incidentally, Framley Parsonage is by Trollope — what happened to the editorial standards of the OUP?)

I would love to read an engaged and curious book about conversation in English, written by somebody genuinely interested in how a wide range of users speak. I can’t think of anything more humane or valuable; but this one contributes less to our understanding than half an hour’s eavesdropping on strangers on the 137 bus. That, I strongly recommend./>

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