'Walking English,' A Language Travelogue Whether near his home in Wales or abroad, linguist David Crystal always travels with an insatiable curiosity about the English language. For his book, Walking English, he hit the road in search of new linguistic experiences.
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'Walking English,' A Language Travelogue

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'Walking English,' A Language Travelogue

'Walking English,' A Language Travelogue

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[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A caller in this segment misspoke. She said George Washington named her town during the Civil War. Of course, Washington fought in the War of Independence, not the Civil War, and we apologize for any confusion.]


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Whether near his home in Wales, roaming other parts of Britain or even further afield, linguist David Crystal always travels with an insatiable curiosity about the English language. He never fails to meet people with distinctive accents or come across towns with unusual names, and takes the time to explore intriguing turns of phrase, whether rooted deep in Anglo-Saxon origins or fresh off a television set.

In his new book, "Walking English," David Crystal hits the road in search of new linguistic experiences from Wales to Lodz in Poland and California's Silicon Valley. He joins us in a moment to discuss the lilts, words, catchphrases and grammar he found along the way.

Later in the program, how storylines for TV dramas get ripped from the headlines. "Law and Order's" Rene Balcer joins us. But first, "Walking English" and we want to hear from you. What kind of accent do you have? How do you define it and what does it say about you? Call us with your story. 800-929-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David Crystal joins us from his home in Holyhead, Wales. And it's nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. DAVID CRYSTAL (Author, "Walking English"): Hello, Neal, it's a real pleasure to be back.

CONAN: And to begin with, how do you define your accent?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: I wish I could. Well, you know, an accent reflects where you've been, where you've been brought up. And most people these days don't spend their whole lives in one place. So, whereas once upon a time it was quite easy to almost predict where somebody had come from just by listening to them, you listen to somebody like me and what you hear in this voice you're hearing now is the first 10 years of my life living in Wales - living in Wales it would have been that sort of accent then. And then the next 10 years of my life living in Liverpool, well, everybody knows the Beatles. The Beatles accent, you know. And there was that sort of accent mixed in with it. And then I lived for 20 years down in the south of England and there was a kind of, you know, southern accent that came on top of the other two. And they've all mixed together to produce what you're hearing now.

CONAN: And it's interesting, you say, in part, your accent depends on who you're speaking with. Your children, for example, grew up in this country.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well, it's - it's, you know, as you and I might talk now over the next few minutes, I wouldn't mind betting that my accent became slightly more American than it might have been before. You know, it's what happens. Accents change in terms of everything. I mean, that's a good example. My kids, take the word schedule, you know, schedule in America, of course. Now I was brought up to say shed-ule. But all my kids have been influenced by American English. So, they all say, sked-ule. So, when I talk to them, I say sked-ule as well now. So, I got two pronunciations of the word. And this is very typical of the way language is going.

CONAN: I - I had the good fortune to live and work in London for four years and it was my contention that an American could get about two-thirds of the way to a British accent before anybody noticed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: That's right. And not just in pronunciation but, also in spelling because an awful lot of the American spellings have come into British English now. Yes, that's right. I mean, it's all your fault, you see...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: ...you guys, the other side of the pond. You've made all the films, you made all the most successful television programs and things like that. And so, inevitably we are more used to your accent than you are to ours. I mean, one day, when British filmmaking becomes as powerful as Hollywood, it might go the other way round. But I can't see that happening just yet.

CONAN: Well, we used to go to the theatre sometimes and we would hear British actors doing Americans accents. In general they're much better at American accents than we are at British ones. But nevertheless, there used to be something I used to call the I-80 accent because it sort of wandered all the way across the country.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: That's right. It's very difficult actually to pick up the accent differences within a country if you're not part of that country.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRYSTAL: I mean, I've been to America several times and I've got to know, you know, some of the accent differences, but I still have great difficulty placing accents in a way that you would have no trouble about. And vice-versa. You know, Americans come over to Britain and they - they don't - they get the main accents, like say, Scottish English or something like that...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRYSTAL: But it's very difficult to really put your finger on some of the more subtle differences.

CONAN: I was astonished to learn that English people had a hard time differentiating between American and Canadian accents. And indeed, they found it curious that I couldn't tell the difference between Kiwis and Aussies.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, that's right.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. CRYSTAL: I think most people would be completely unclear about the difference between U.S. and Canadian English. I mean, there are some very clear differences, like the Canadian, you know, house, which you just don't get the other side of - your side of the border. But most British people just wouldn't hear it.

CONAN: And the interesting thing, my mother used to claim that she could be able to identify somebody within a block of where they lived in Brooklyn. And it was interesting, one of the people you write about in your book, perhaps the most famous literary linguist of all time, Henry Higgins, made the same claim in Victorian England - in Victorian London.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yes, he did. And - I mean, that's George Bernard Shaw writing there, and at a time when I think it was possible to do that sort of thing. You know, there used to be radio programs in those days when radio first came in. And one I think I remember was called "Where Are You From?"


Mr. CRYSTAL: And people would come and just talk and the panel would try and work out exactly where they came from. Now, you know, you could do it sometimes to within a very, very narrow area. In fact, there is a very famous case, more recently, where that actually happened. Did you ever come across the Yorkshire Ripper case in the US?

CONAN: Sure. Yes, it got...

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah.

CONAN: ...some publicity here, yeah.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, well when - when that guy was being tracked down a few years ago, a hoaxer sent a tape to the police saying that he was the Yorkshire Ripper. Now, of course it was a hoax, it wasn't him. But the point is the police were fooled for quite a while thinking it was. So they put the forensic phoneticians to work on the case, and they worked out that this hoax tape probably came from a certain part of the city of Sunderland, which is up in the northeast of England. And they even identified it as being part of just south of the river there. Now, when they found the hoaxer a few years later, that's exactly where he came from.

CONAN: That's great. We're talking with David Crystal today. We want to hear from our listeners. What kind of accent do you have and what does it say about you? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. We have one of the most interesting linguists in the world with us as well, so if you have other questions about language, we'll entertain one or two of those as well. And let's see if we can get Patrick(ph) on the line, from Lockport in New York.

PATRICK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. First time caller and long time listener.

CONAN: Well, thank you for both of those.

PATRICK: Absolutely. I am currently living in western New York, near Buffalo and have been here for 10 or 15 years. My mother is from the Adirondacks in northern New York, which has a very heavy French-Canadian influence from Quebec. And a lot of the ways that I learned to pronounce words - when I came out to western New York, people spent a lot of time kind of looking at me and, you know, with kind of a cocked head, you know, wondering exactly what I was saying. Nothing - nothing too dramatic, but things like, my wife likes to pick on me for saying engine instead of engine. And you know, there are a couple of other, you know, funny examples of that.

CONAN: Little tics, and where did people think you were from?

PATRICK: Well, you know, I blend in, you know, but, you know, people kind of knew that, you know, maybe I was - I was from, you know, perhaps some other state. And if you listen to people from the Adirondacks, they've got a very thick accent that I think runs up through, you know, northern Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine.

CONAN: Hmm. David Crystal, I'm not sure you're familiar with that particular patois.

Mr. CRYSTAL: No, it's - but, you know, it - the story is just so typical, isn't it, really?

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. CRYSTAL: I mean, you know, there was a - there was a myth around once upon a time that - that when you went to - across America, you'd find very few regional accents. Like when you go across Canada and go across Australia -compared with Britain, that is, where there are very, very rapid accent changes every few miles. But, you know, the people like the Dictionary of American Regional English and all the people who've been studying accents in the States over the past 20 years or so, they're finding that there are huge numbers accents, very, very subtle accents like the ones that Patrick's just been talking about because of the influence of the adjacent areas. And whereas once upon a time we wouldn't have encountered these because people stayed in their own place, now, thanks to things like radio and telephone and all the ways of communicating with each other, we encounter these accents more. And so, we are discovering that they're actually out there.

CONAN: Patrick, thanks very much.

PATRICK: Thank you very much.

CONAN: So long.

It's interesting, also, that once upon a time, regional accents were, well, almost forbidden on radio stations, and the BBC famously, for example, had that BBC plummy accent, and if you lived out in the country, you didn't hear your accent.

Mr. CRYSTAL: No, you didn't, and until very recently, the BBC was very much against presenting regional accents on their main channels. I mean, as recently as 1980, you know, they were - you know, they tried it out. They had a lady from Scotland present the news on Radio 4, and she got criticized all over the place and lost her job for a while. And then 2005, the context where I wrote my book, was because of the journey - I traveled 'round the country relating to the BBC, who were now celebrating all the accents and dialects of the British Isles. And actually if you listen to the BBC these days, you hear regional accents all over the place.

CONAN: Let's get Virginia on the line from Nampa, Idaho.

VIRGINIA (Caller): Oh, and thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: You're not originally from Idaho, I take it.

VIRGINIA: I am from a little town called (unintelligible)…

CONAN: We lost that. What town in Virginia?

VIRGINIA: Pulaski.

CONAN: Pulaski in Virginia.

VIRGINIA: It was named - George Washington named it during the Civil War, after a Polish count. His name was Pulaski.

CONAN: Indeed, so after the Civil War, no doubt. But - so you have a Virginia accent?


CONAN: And how do people in Idaho take to that?

VIRGINIA: When I first came out here, they'd (unintelligible) laugh at you, made you feel like it, they (unintelligible).

CONAN: We're having a little trouble with your phone line, Virginia, but I'm going to thank you for your call and take up your question with David Crystal. And she was saying that people there in Idaho heard her Southern accent and thought she was stupid. Well, if you speak differently from somebody else, they always tend to think you're a little odd.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Oh, dear, this is the worst, worst nightmare, isn't it, of all. I mean, this is the thing that linguists go on and on and on about. There is no correlation whatsoever between an accent and your intelligence or your personality or anything. Accents simply tell you where you're from, and just because people come from a part of the country that's relatively more rural, well, of course, there's a long tradition, isn't there, of thinking that rural people are stupid, whereas city people are intelligent. And I wonder how often, in fact, it's the other way around.

CONAN: Or your pal Henry Higgins who thought the Cockneys sounded stupid and needed to sound like upper-class Brits.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well, absolutely yes. No, exactly. The sort of the Virginia-Idaho situation that was being talked about there has its exact parallels in every other country in the world and not just for English, either. You know, you find this in France and Germany and all over the place.

CONAN: So how do you define your accent? What does it say about you? We'll talk more with David Crystal in a moment. His book is titled "Walking English." More of your calls, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. David Crystal is our guest, a well-known linguist and traveler. He's managed to combine both in his latest book, "Walking English: A Journey in Search of Language." You can read about the linguistic genius Crystal found on San Francisco's famous Pier 39 or the linguistic connection between baseball and Jane Austen. That's in an excerpt on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We also want to hear from you. What kind of accent do you have? How do you define it? What does it say about you? Call us with your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We got this email from Diane(ph) in Milwaukee. We were traveling in New Zealand, and I asked the bus driver if rocks ever fell into the road and caused a problem. He said rots? I said no, no, no, rocks, the stones in the road. He said oh, rocks. Yes, the sometimes fall into the road. Then he said, you know, New Zealand is the only English-speaking country with no accent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'm not sure that's quite true, but I guess anywhere you go, people think that's the way you should talk.

Mr. CRYSTAL: That's exactly right. Everybody talks with an accept except 'round here, you know, wherever 'round here happens to be. That's so true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Jeff(ph). Jeff's with us from Athens in Ohio.

JEFF (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, Jeff.

JEFF: Hi. I just wanted to say, I find the topic interesting. I've always kind of been interested in accents, linguistics and things like that, and I just wanted to say that I grew up in (unintelligible)…

CONAN: And we're having trouble with your cell phone, too, Jeff. Could you try it again? You grew up in Southeastern Ohio? And I think Jeff's batteries have betrayed him. So let's see if we can go to another caller, and we'll go to Brian(ph), Brian with us from Grand Rapids.

BRIAN (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal and David. I've got that Midwestern accent. Here in Michigan, we've also got the Yooper accent from the Upper Peninsula.

CONAN: We were hearing about that on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY this weekend.

BRIAN: That's correct, and the nice lady from Pulaski in West Virginia there, we have Pulaski Days coming up this weekend for Kazimierz Pulaski, the Polish general. But my question had to do with idiomatic expressions, you know, and one of them that I have from the construction is to have a hitch in your get-along.

CONAN: Aha. I've heard that in baseball. Fast runners are said to have a giddy-up in their get-along.

BRIAN: Well, this is like if you have a backache, and you're kind of limping, you've got a little hitch in your get-along.

CONAN: Aha. David, are you familiar with that?

Mr. CRYSTAL: No, I've never heard that one before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There's a million of them, aren't there.

Mr. CRYSTAL: That one hasn't crossed the Atlantic yet.

CONAN: Go ahead, Brian, I'm sorry.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Sometimes we sit around the lunch room and make up sentences, and one of them happened to be if your whodictaphibious(ph) doesn't coagulate, will you get a farchordancy(ph) of the organ master? That is to say the magnitude of your phraseology is far too copious for my magnificent comprehension.

CONAN: Aha, well, that sort of nonsense talk I think translates extremely well, doesn't it, David?

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, it's the sort of thing that actually starts quite young, you know. I don't know what the normal age would be over your side of the pond, but in Britain, you get - you often hear sort of 10-, 11-year-olds who are really finding out about the big words in the language for the first time, and they start to use them in - sometimes quite an inappropriate way, but they just love the sound of these great polysyllabic monsters. And I think once you start loving the sounds of words, then that's the key to it, really. That's a way into all sorts of things, into literature, into poetry, into everything, really.

CONAN: Well, it's interesting also, when you talk about words, and Brian, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. There are words you find, for example, words that are supposed to be extinct in Britain but are still being used. And here on this side of the Atlantic, we have people from the Caribbean who use words like vexed that are just not commonly pronounced in normal American.

Mr. CRYSTAL: I think anytime you go into the, you know, the back woods - in Britain, too, if you go up into the North Country and into the hills, into Wales, into Ireland - you'll find words that, well, that haven't been around since Shakespeare's time. For example, I was in Ireland just a couple of days ago, and I heard somebody say that they wanted to go to the jakes, J-A-K-E-S. Now, jakes is - they meant they wanted to go to the toilet.

Now, jakes isn't a word that you get very often in Britain, but you'll find it in Shakespeare, for instance. And that shows how some of those words have not come into standard English, but they've kept alive in some of the regions.

CONAN: You talk - part of your book is about how words originate, and in fact, Shakespeare is probably credited with the - as the first source of more words than anybody else, but his batting average is not terribly good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well yes. I mean, you know, I think any of us would be delighted if we'd invented just one word, and it entered the language forever and ever and ever. Shakespeare has sometimes had an exaggerated view of this. People have sometimes said Shakespeare has invented half the words in the English language or something like that.

In actual fact, the number of words that he brought into English is a few hundred, probably about 700 or so, which is amazing, of course, really, but it is only 700. And when you think that in English, there are well over a million words altogether, you can see that even Shakespeare only contributed a small element to the overall mix.

CONAN: Let's get Tundai(ph) on the line, Tundai calling from Phoenix. I hope I'm pronouncing your name correctly.

TUNDAI (Caller): Yes, how are you doing, sir?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

TUNDAI: My name is Tundai. I'm from Phoenix, Arizona, and I don't mean to add, like, a racial aspect to this, but being a black male, I personally feel like I don't really have an accent. I really feel like - I just feel like I talk proper for an American black male. I just have to say I talk pretty proper. And moving on to my favorite accent is the Jamaican accent, like the Jamaican that they speak, like, on the island. I love it. I can really hear, like me personally, I can hear the correlation like the African slaves that made it to the States as opposed to the ones that made it to the islands. And I see, like, the distinct Nigerian influence and the Swahili and the different dialects.

CONAN: Have you studied that at all, David?

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, that's right. This is one of the really interesting areas. This is - I mean, accents, of course, don't just relate to region. They relate to your social class, they relate to your occupation, and they relate to your ethnic background. And ethnicity and accent is one of the most fascinating areas of all.

Now, you're absolutely right, Tundai. I mean, you have got an accent that reflects a unique history, and it's proper in its own terms. And what I'm delighted to hear is that you think of it like this, because an awful lot of people who have got similar kind of background to you feel very, you know, suspicious of it or even inferior about it. And this is quite wrong. You know, people should be proud of the accent that they have, explore it in the way you've done it, and when you do start exploring it, you find all kinds of interesting factors in it.

TUNDAI: See, I also think it's almost on a genealogy level. I've got a lot of Irish friends. I hang out an Irish pub, and a lot of them have never seen Ireland, but their parents or grandparents - so being around them, they pick up the dialects and a little, you know, the little - you know, I can tell, but maybe them being around their family, they can't tell, but me being an outsider, I can tell. It's like man, you wouldn't - where are you from? You're Irish, huh? Yeah, I'm Irish or Norwegian or..

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, yeah.

TUNDAI: I don't know. I think sometimes it's like almost a genealogy thing. It can be traced through the genes and whatnot, and it can kind of skip this generation and so on and so forth.

CONAN: Well, Tundai, thank you very much for the call, appreciate it.

TUNDAI: Thank you.

CONAN: It's interesting. Saying that, a lot of Americans, for example back in the early '70s, had a lot of trouble understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland when you had two people who were ethnically identical, and how could they tell that they were from either Catholics or Protestants. And it took going there to realize that as soon as they opened their mouths, you understood that one was a Catholic, and one was a Protestant.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah, absolutely. And there were some quite specific features. I mean, everybody remembers the tale from the Old Testament of the Bible about Shibboleth and about the people who were identified by the way they spoke as belonging to the enemy, and then they were killed in that Bible story.

Well, the same thing can be - you can find absolutely specific features of English that distinguish Catholics and Protestants or Northern Ireland people from Southern Ireland people and so on. Like for instance when you're saying the alphabet, and you say A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and now how would you pronounce the next letter? Do you pronounce it H, or do you pronounce it H with huh(ph) at the beginning, and one is Protestant, and the other is Catholics.

CONAN: There is an interesting - I met a professor there who happened to be Catholic, but he was teaching at Queens University Belfast. He'd been at university in Britain for some time and had come back to teach in Northern Ireland, and his students were trying to get him to say words so they could figure out whether he was Protestant or Catholic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: Absolutely. I mean, one mustn't go too far about this because, you know, there are only a few features like this, and the vast majority of features of Irish English are the same between North and South. But on the other hand, you can really tell the difference, and that's the crucial point.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kim. Kim with us from Jacksonville.

KIM (Caller): Hi. I enjoy your show. This is a fascinating topic.

CONAN: Thank you.

KIM: I was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where it has a very distinctive accent, went to school in Oklahoma and then lived in Houston for seven years. And now I've been in Florida for about 16, and I'm raising my six children here in Florida. So they've all been born in the South. But I hear in their accent more of a Mid-Western tone because of my influence. And I'm wondering if you've studied that at all, if it makes a difference what they hear in the home, even though they're hearing all the Southern accents around them.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Hmm. That sounds interesting. I mean, usually it goes the other way, you know. I mean, parents with their young children, and the young children pick up the accent of the home, go out into the streets and start mixing with their peers and suddenly come back home speaking in a different way and the parents get all upset about it. So this is kind of a reverse scenario in some way. How old are the kids now?

KIM: Well, I have children ranging from six years old to 16. I have six boys.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah.

KIM: And I…

Mr. CRYSTAL: Are the older ones - are the older ones picking up the accent of the area though?

KIM: I don't hear the Southern accent like I hear from some of their friends. You know, it's pretty distinctive.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah.

KIM: But neither my husband or I have a Southern accent.


KIM: So I'm just wondering if they - you know, just are kind of immune to that, in a sense.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well, the - you know, one thing that might happen is that they be - when they're - you're not hearing the full range of accents that are actually out there. I remember a case like this once. And Wen Wang actually went into the locality where the kids were mixing with their other friends. What we found was that the accent they were using there was actually quite different from the accent they used when they came back home and talked to their families.


Mr. CRYSTAL: In other words, they've got lots of accents at their disposal.


KIM: That could very well be, because when I hear them talking to their friends, that's when I hear…

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah.

KIM: …more of a Southern accent.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah.

KIM: But when they're talking at the home, I don't hear it.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah. I think they're all multi-lingual, multi-dialectal, I suppose we could say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KIM: And their grandparents still complain about them sounding like Southerners, so I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)


KIM: Well, thank you…

CONAN: Tape record them in secret and then you'll have absolute evidence and they - of course, they will be very angry with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Okay. Kim, thanks very much for your phone call.

KIM: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with David Crystal, the author of "How Language Works." His new book is called "Walking English: A Journey In Search of Language." And he follows the English language to some unlikely locations including outposts like San Francisco. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from AJ in Charlotte, North Carolina. I have a silky Southern drawl. My accent will immediately soothe an angry beast and make you want for a mint julep. I think my accent puts people at ease in social settings, but the trouble is, when a Southerner begins to speak at a meeting outside of the South, people tune you out and assume you are not an expert in that particular subject matter. Drives me nuts. And I guess that goes back to the Henry Higgins issue we were talking about earlier. Yeah.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah. Drives me nuts too. I mean, you know, I hope as time goes by that we start to loose these historical stereotypes. It - there is no basis for this. It's understandable, when you think of the history, how it all happened. But as people become more available to each other, hear accents more through all the means that we have, and as people with particular accents achieve highly prominent positions in society, from presidents downwards, you know, I hope that this kind of thing will become less and less.

CONAN: Let's talk with Lolitha(ph) in San Francisco.

LOLITHA (Caller): Yes, hi.


LOLITHA: I'm originally from India and moved to the States when I was 19 after having lived in other countries with my family. And I have personally lived all over the world. And one of the comments I get very often is that I speak English without an accent, that I have non-accented or accentless English. And I was wondering from a linguistic standpoint if there is such a thing and how it's defined.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Yeah. That's very interesting, Lolitha. And you're right. I mean, having heard you now, if you hadn't told me what you just said, I would be scratching my head now and wondering, where is this lady from?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: Because you are displaying a number of features from the backgrounds that you've got. And as a result, your accent isn't easy to identify. Now, you've got an accent because everybody has an accent by definition. You know, you can't speak without an accent. The question is, is the accent an identifiable one.


Mr. CRYSTAL: And people who haven't got an identifiable or an easily identifiable accent are often said to have no accent. And you are a difficult case. But that's precisely because of your amazing background.

LOLITHA: Well, is it linguistically sound, I suppose, from a technical standpoint, to say that there is such a thing as non-accented English?

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well, I think - no. I think, technically, in linguistics, you would say that everybody has an accent and some accents reflect - they reflect the backgrounds we were talking about just before. But not everybody has an accent that is easily identifiable with reference to a particular point of origin. So you wouldn't say you haven't got an accent. You'd have to say something like technically an accent that is regionally identifiable or something of that sort.

LOLITHA: So should I feel complimented or insulted or neither?

Mr. CRYSTAL: I think you should just be yourself. I mean, that is who you are and that is your background. And it's a source of interest to any observer that people are able to develop that kind of mixed accent in that sort of way. In actual fact, you're probably in the majority in the world nowadays.


Mr. CRYSTAL: I mean, people who lived all their lives in one place are actually rather rare. And as I go around the world - and certainly in this book - I kept - you know, I started the book thinking I'd be able to identify everybody I came across. I ended the book thinking I've hardly identified anybody.



LOLITHA: Right. Well, thanks so much for taking my call.

CONAN: And Lolitha, whatever accent you have, you should be very proud because you have great elocution. You pronounce things brilliantly.

LOLITHA: Oh, thanks. I owe it to my father, who was fully Indian but spoke like he was from Oxford. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

LOLITHA: And he was very - he was an Anglophile and really worked on us with our pronunciation and our diction and our delivery. So if there's anything good about the way I speak, I really owe it to him.

Mr. CRYSTAL: Well, this is absolutely right. And indeed, in one of the chapters of my book, I go to India, or tell some stories about being in India, and I encountered that so often.


CONAN: Lolitha…

LOLITHA: Thanks so much.

CONAN: …thanks very much for the call. And we should say that another of the place that David Crystal visits, or rather closer to his home in Wales, is a place called Port Marion, where if - well, there are heads nodding all over the country now as people remember the wonderful television show back in the 1970s, Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner." And there are some stories told about Port Marion and "The Prisoner." So David Crystal, we can say be seeing you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRYSTAL: Be seeing you.

CONAN: David Crystal joined us from his home in Wales. He's an honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales Bangor, the author or editor of over 100 books. He joined us from Holyhead in North Wales. His book is called "Walking English: A Journey In Search of Language."

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