Author Article by David Crystal: John Wayne or Eminem? Explaining Language to Younger Readers

David Crystal

In A Little Book of Language DAVID CRYSTAL sets out a lively narrative history of language aimed specifically at a young audience. As the pre-eminent linguist explains, this ambitious project posed some interesting language-based challenges for the author, as he navigated the cultural – as well as linguistic – differences that separate older and younger readers.

What was my most memorable experience of writing A Little Book of Language? Well, if you’re writing a book in the Gombrich tradition, wanting to make it accessible to twelve-year-olds as well as to adults, then you’d better check your intuitions. Being an adult, I have an intuition I can rely upon. But it’s a long time since I was twelve.

I already knew about norms of language aquisition in young people. That’s one of the things that linguists do: study child language. There are certain ways of writing which are easier to understand, and some which are more difficult. For example, if you’re trying to explain a difficult concept, it pays you not to break what is called ‘order of mention’.

‘Order of mention’ refers to the way in which language reflects events. If I say ‘X happened, then Y happened, then Z happened’, my language reflects the fact that, in the real world, these three events took place in that order. But if I say ‘Before X happened, Y happened’, the first thing I say is actually the second thing that took place. And the same reversal occurs if I say ‘X happened after Y happened’.

These reversals make the language harder to understand. We know this because of the mistakes children make. Take this sentence from a history book:

‘In 1666 there was a great fire in London. The year before, there had been a great plague. The fire got rid of the plague.’

What happened first? Fire or plague? It’s surprising how many children say ‘fire’. They assume that  the first thing that’s mentioned is the first thing that happened. They evidently ignore the ‘reversal’ function of the year before. It’s an important teaching point to focus on constructions of this kind, therefore, to aid reading comprehension.  And once you know that this kind of construction causes problems, it’s as well for a writer, aiming a book at a young age-range, to avoid it when trying to get a difficult notion across.

So, I spent quite a lot of time making sure that, in A Little Book of Language, the linguistic level of the writing would be as easy as possible for young teenagers to understand. But, to be certain, I thought I’d better check. So I got a twelve-year-old to read the whole thing. ‘Underline anything you don’t understand’, I asked her. ‘Any places where you find yourself puzzled by what I’m saying.’

This was a professional, paid job for her, and she took it seriously. When I got my typescript back I started to read it through, and was delighted to see hardly any underlinings. Evidently I was at the right level. But my satisfied smile disappeared when I got to the chapter where I talk about pseudonyms. I had used examples of famous people who had adopted a stage name. They were all examples I had used before, and none of them had ever caused problems. But not this time. She underlined John Wayne.

‘Why have you underlined John Wayne?’ I asked her. ‘Who’s John Wayne’, she replied. ‘You don’t know who John Wayne is? I asked incredulously. ‘No’ she said, puzzled at my puzzlement. I amplified. ‘Stagecoach? The chase across the desert? Indians. Cavalry…’ Her face stayed blank.

This is nothing to do with linguistics. This is cultural shift. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so incredulous, but it did take me by surprise. As I say, it’s been a long time since I was twelve, or had twelve-year-olds living at home, and I’d forgotten just how great that cultural shift has been. What shared cultural experiences do we have these days with teenagers, especially in a multi-cultural world? Earlier in the book I talk about the origin of the phrase Adams apple. I need to mention Adam and Eve. Can I assume knowledge of them? Increasingly, it seems, not.

I negotiated a deal with my twelve-year-old informant. Other famous films? We seemed to have only one in common, and I couldn’t think of any famous pseudonyms in it. Perhaps I could use some characters from television soaps? Nope. She didn’t watch those, nor did any of her friends. But she did watch Dr Who. Ah, brilliant. David Tennant (real name David McDonald). So he went in. And in the end we agreed on a pop star, Eminem (real name Marshall Bruce Mathews), and she allowed me Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), as she knew about Alice in Wonderland.

But this is a no-win situation. If I had given the revised typescript to adult readers, would they have underlined Eminem? And actually, now that David Tennant no longer plays Dr Who, will the next generation of teenagers know who he is? Does an author of an information book these days have to do a cultural rewrite with every new edition? Or can we hope that our educational system will be able to keep our youngsters in touch with the significant cultural moments of the past? I hope the latter, but I have my doubts.

What film did we have in common? Harry Potter, of course. (And yes, he’s in A Little Book of Language too.)

A Little Book of LanguageDavid Crystal is one of the world’s pre-eminent language specialists. Writer, editor, lecturer, and broadcaster, he is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. He has written nearly 100 books, including The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language, By Hook or By Crook: a Journey in Search of English, Txtng: the Gr8 Db8, The Stories of English, and Rediscover Grammar, as well as publishing widely on phonetics, Shakespeare’s language and child language. In 1995 he was awarded the OBE for services to the English language. His latest book, A Little Book of Language is available from www.yalebooks.co.uk

1 Comment

  • December 8, 2010

    Robert Hagedorn

    Do a search: The First Scandal Adam and Eve.

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