Linguist David Crystal's Autobiography and Ode to the Study of Language
Once on the fast track in academia, author and linguist David Crystal stepped down from the ivory tower years ago. Now, in addition to his own research, he has taken on the task of bringing the study of linguistics to the public at large. His writing ranges from the serious and scientific to articles about the language we use in text messaging.
In his memoir, Just a Phrase I’m Going Through: My Life in Language, he exploits all his talents to tell the story of his life, a tale which is inevitably linked with his career as a linguist. His book is both interesting as a philosophical work, and a heartening tale of someone who has found his true calling. More than simply funny and engaging, Crystal is passionate, conversational, exploding and informative.
Crystal’s greatest asset is the fact that he is that he is utterly genuine. Clearly he is accomplished academically, and equally prolific in his incarnation as “academic consultant” (as he calls it), but he writes about each of the opportunities in his life with vigor and curiosity. His retelling of his many achievements does not come across as bragging.
Tales from his linguistic career are peppered with intense personal moments such as the death of his son and meeting his father after many years of absenteeism. These sadder moments are not presented with unnecessary drama or ego, either. They are integrated seamlessly into the career aspect of his memoir, and his explanation of linguistics. After his son dies, the next page and chapter explain how he ended up in applied, rather than pure linguistics.
These easy shifts demonstrate the truth of Crystal’s claim that being a linguist is as much a part of his personal identity as anything else. His ability to tell such a smooth story also confirms another of his later realizations: that his true calling is as a writer. His only fault (and one that he admits to) is that in some cases, he provides a little too much information, and sections of the book certainly lag more than others. Although he is a “pop” linguist, much of the book is not easily digested by pop culture at large. However, he avoids much too technical language, and does his best to explain it when he does.
He begins with the premise that linguists are “made, not born” and seeks to follow the trajectory of events in his life that led him to become a linguist. In many respects, the book has the same tone as other memoirs. He came from a Welsh-Irish background, and led a lonely childhood raised by a single mother. His early childhood ventures are less interesting than his adolescence, when he shares funny anecdotes occurring at the beginning of his career.
He started his writing career at a Priests’ newspaper, and took his final University exams while in the hospital being treated for TB. In addition to being a talented linguist, Crystal seems to be one of those lucky people whose lives play out like sitcoms. But the book is never low-brow, rather, Crystal’s innate quirkiness, and delight in sharing it, is what makes this book such an excellent bridge between the lay people and the world of academia.
Perhaps he achieves this because he lacks some stereotypical traits of academics. Crystal is clearly brilliant, but mostly modest. And first and foremost, he insists on own humanity: he just happens to have, among other human traits, an uncanny obsession with and devotion to linguistics. But he makes his dream tangible. He discusses how even his love for cycling gave him the stamina to pursue a career in academics; he is in every way a real person, despite his unusual passion.
And his myriad interests help him to guide his reader into a world where linguistics matter. Every few pages is a small blurb titled “Linguist as ...” (Shakespearian, Detective, Revolutionary, etc), in which he explains, through telling of personal narrative, how linguistics overlaps with another career or profession. Not only does he show fellow academics why their work matters, but he demonstrates how much linguistics is a part of our lives.
Ultimately the book will be liberating for academics and revelatory for anyone with an interest in language, or a strong curiosity about the lives of others. Although the book is technically a memoir about linguistics, Crystal also possesses stellar self-knowledge. Just a Phrase I’m Going Through is also a powerful window into the human soul. That said, the subject matter is self-selecting. The book may not appeal to wider audiences, but those that pick it up will undoubtedly enjoy it.