IATEFL Conference - Birmingham 2016 : A Blast from the Past

In the academic year of 1979-80 (yes, that long ago), I had the privilege of following a series of lectures on the structure of English given by Professor David Crystal (then a mere Doctor, if my memory serves me well) as part of a M.A course in Applied Linguistics at the University of Reading. And I use the word privilege advisedly. Although it's not terribly fashionable in ELT, including on TEFL training courses, I've always been a big fan of the lecture as a teaching / learning format. I know I've learnt more from attending various good lecture series than from many equivalent hours of interactive seminars, group discussions and whatever. And Crystal's lecture series wasn't just good - it was the best.

Crystal was a superb lecturer. Rarely have I come across someone who not only obviously had a full grasp of their subject but was also able to put it across clearly, concisely and in a way that held your attention from one end of the hour to the next, making it not only interesting but also fun. Crystal instilled in me a fascination with language and the way it works that has never left me. 

So you can see why I have called this post A Blast from the Past. Of everything that I'd seen of the IATEFL programme, this was the talk I was most looking forward to - so much that I arrived at my desk, ready to watch online, two hours early. Yes - I'd got the time difference wrong. The UK is an hour behind us, not an hour ahead. I'd even got up half an hour earlier than normal.... Oh well, Crystal gave me my understanding of language - it's just a pity someone else couldn't have done the same for numbers. 

Crystal was talking about language change, and in particular the changes that have occurred in the last 60 years. He started fairly non-controversially with vocabulary change and gave examples of words which had been introduced in recent years (my favourite was wasband - a former husband)  and then pointed out examples of words current in the sixties which are no longer used - like groovy.  He then made the point that the Internet means that we are now far more exposed to different varieties of English than fifty years ago, and eg British English is as likely to be influenced by South African English as vice versa.

Up to here I was slightly disappointed. What he was saying was fairly obvious, and seemed to be there more to entertain than to inform. However, he then got on to the point that was of more interest to me - grammatical change.

Professor Crystal pointed out a that a number of changes occurring in the grammar of contemporary English, giving three examples : 

1. A marked decrease in frequency of up to 50% of some modal verbs (eg shall, may, must) with periphrastic forms like going to / have to replacing them.  This was, he suggested, caused by a social/psychological tendency towards a the use of less direct style of speech: You have to do it sounding "softer" than You must do it

2. An increase in the use of the progressive - eg the MacDonald's I'm loving it  but also I'm wanting a new fridge;  It's mattering to me a lot and several other examples which i didn't have time to copy down, but which were all taken from authentic sources

3. The use of relative pronouns. The use of that replacing that of which. I was bouncing up and down wanting to ask a question at this point, and it was one that unfortunately he didn't address. was he talking about defining relative clauses only (in which case, yes, this wasn't particularly surprising) or was it also happening in non-defining clauses. Having spent several hours correcting Delta Module Two assignments yesterday and patiently pointing out that that should be used in defining clauses only, it was an issue in which I had a considerable personal investment.

I could have wished this section to go on for much longer, but Crystal then moved on to talking about how pronunciation had changed in the period.

You don't have to be a linguist to realise this - just listen to any BBC broadcast from the 60s or before and it hits you between the eyes - or should that be the ears?  RP rules OK? In fact Crystal pointed out that when the BBC started using the first news presenter with a regional accent (Scots, and I think he said in 1966), they had to take her off again because of public protests. However, things started to change and broadcasting helped both to diffuse the acceptability of regional accents (with the popularity of series such as Coronation Street, The Archers, Neighbours, and Eastenders) and to reflect their greater acceptance.

He pointed out that all accents, including RP (now often known as "General English") have changed as they have been increasingly influenced by the accents of different regions, including the accents of people from different ethnic origins, which are not only heard on the media but also locally in what is now an overwhelmingly cosmopolitan society. He later went on to say that there has been a corresponding change in attitude to  accent, particularly in the last twenty years,  with RP, far from being seen as something to aspire to, now often being considered negatively - for instance as "insincere".

Crystal then started talking about his own accent - which amused me because it was the first thing I noticed when he started talking. Crystal's accent is, he said, a mix of the accents of the places where he has spent most of his life :  North Wales, Liverpool and Southern England. The point he was making was that he wasn't necessarily consistent - his use of vowels, for example, may at times reflect a northern British accent and at other times a southern variety. But what I'd noticed was how much more southern he now sounded than in 1979. When he was lecturing on my M.A there was no doubt - he was a Northern British speaker. In today's talk, the northern accent was there - but no more than the odd vowel in the occasional word. It was a completely different accent from the one I remembered him having. 

He completed the section on pronunciation with a prediction : that over the next 50 years a syllable timed pronunciation of English will become more usual than stress timing, due to the influence of regional varieties - for example,  Jamaican, South African, and Indian. Who knows? Annoyingly, neither he nor I will be here to find out if he was right.

He then went on to talk about how the internet was speeding up change : previously a new word might take a generation to enter common usage, while now it can happen almost instantaneously; spelling and punctuation are no longer "controlled" by editors and publishing style codes, and a tendency towards simplification which is evident even in print (eg the lack of full stops in abbreviations such as  BBC, and other changes which have no effect on meaning or intelligibility) is intensified on the net. How long will I continue to be capitalised ? And i have to say this is a development i would be rather in favour of. 

And then? Who knows? a technical hitch meant that we lost the last five minutes other than a brief moment in which Crystal appeared to be talking about the difference between organic language change and "wrong" use. If anyone who was there would like to add a summary of the end of the talk in the comments box below, the 250 or so people who were following online would be very grateful :)

So overall did he live up to my expectations? Well, with the exception of the section on vocabulary, which went on too long for my liking, yes. I'd like have heard more about grammatical change, which was the shortest section of the talk, but overall, A++. As informative and as fascinating as ever.

Want to see other IATEFL Posts? 

The IATEFL online programme
1966 and all that - Scott Thornbury's Saturday plenary

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