TSOTA meets David Crystal, co-author of ‘You Say Potato’


Do you say ‘SHEDdule‘ or ‘SKEDule‘? ‘Bath’ or ‘Bahth’? On Friday 14th November, Waterstones Leeds hosted ‘An evening with David Crystal’. Together with his son Ben, the pair discussed their brand new book ‘You Say Potato’: a book about accents.

Ahead of the Q&A, Richard Smyth spoke to David about the development of the book, identifying regional accents, working with his son and their work on original pronunciation (OP) of Shakespeare and reading the bible in a week. May we also add that there is a You Say Potato website where you can add your own accent to the ‘Accent Map’…


TSOTA: Your new book ‘You Say Potato’, which you’ve written with your son Ben, is about accents. Why did you choose to write on this subject, and why now?
DC: The publisher approached Ben, who’s an actor and a director and a Shakespeare guy, because they wanted to get a sense from someone who works in the field of accents what it’s like these days, what sorts of accents are popular on stage, what’s happened to the old posh accents, and so on. And Ben said he couldn’t do it by himself because he didn’t know enough about accents! So he asked me, and I said yes – and the reason why I came in on it was because there’s never been a popular book on accents before; lots of academic books, but no really popular ones.

That’s partly because it’s a jolly difficult subject to write about. One person can’t know everything about accents. I’m in my 70s, so I’ve got my sense of what accents are like, Ben’s in his 30s, he’s got a completely different sense of what accents are like – so bringing the two of us together seemed a very good way of approaching it, having that sort of generation-gap difference.




TSOTA: You’re a linguist and an academic, whereas Ben, as an actor, is someone who works with language in a more hands-on way. How did that dynamic work in writing the book?
DC: It’s a totally different perspective and this is one of the exciting things about it. [The book has] a lot of dialogue between us, almost like a play script, and it’s that sort of dynamic. In the very first story in the book, Ben comes into the house one day and says he’s just had ‘a new skedule’ from school – and I say WHAT? – and he says ‘I’ve just had a new skedule’ – and I say WHAT?? – and he says ‘what’s your problem?’, and I say SHEDule. And we have a little row about it.

There are a lot of stories like that in the book, where the age differential between us is obvious and also the different experience. Ben reports a dialogue with his voice agent, for instance – these are powerful people, they cast television commercial voice-overs and so on – and that brings a perspective to the subject that I could never bring.


TSOTA: Have our accents become more homogeneous?
DC: Yes and no. There are some accents that are spreading around the country. ‘Estuary English’, for example, has moved north in the last twenty years or so, but on the other hand it hasn’t stayed the same as it’s moved north. You’ve got people in Leeds who have been watching TV and picking up some of these accents from down south, but what they do is they blend it with their Yorkshire. It’s the same up in Scotland. So there isn’t an identity going around the country, but there are mixes of accents that weren’t there before.

The other thing is that in a city like Leeds, and even more so in London, an immigrant population has come in and brought their languages with them, and so they speak English with an accent that shows their background, whether they’re Indian or Jamaican or Lithuanian or whatever it might be. So you get Lithuanian-Yorkshire accents, and Polish-Yorkshire, and all that sort of thing. So there’s still an awful lot of diversity in accents.


TSOTA: Do people still make value judgments about regional accents?
DC: Absolutely. All the time. When I do talks, this is one of the things that interests audiences most: the fact that attitudes towards accents are still as strong as they ever were. But attitudes are changing. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago, on the whole, there was just one posh accent in the country, and that was the only one anyone gave any sense of respect to, that’s all changed now. When you hear people like Huw Edwards reading the news in a Welsh accent, you see that regional accents have become much more popular. Actually, Yorkshire is up there near the top when it comes to attitudes; in these surveys that have been done, number one and two are usually Edinburgh Scots and Yorkshire. And that’s something that 20 or 30 years ago wouldn’t have been the case.


TSOTA: We still have a lot of posh accents in power, though.
DC: The ‘educated’ accent is still there, there’s no question about that. But it’s no longer the case that if you’ve got a regional accent it’ll stop you getting somewhere. You can climb to the top of the kingdom now, more or less, with a regional accent. It won’t hold you back. Whereas once upon a time it would have. People were very worried about it, they’d try to lose their accents, go to elecutionists and that sort of thing – and that doesn’t happen so much now.


TSOTA: Do you find that you’re able to identify people’s accents?
DC: Once upon a time it was possible to just use your ears and listen to somebody and if you were in the business, like I was, you’d be able to say, ah, you’re definitely Lancashire, definitely Shropshire, definitely Leeds – but these days it’s so hard because people move about the country so much, and they pick up new accents. We’ve all got more than one accent, really, depending on who we’re talking to. Take my accent, which is a real mix of my original Welsh, then 10 years in Liverpool, then 20 years down south and so on, and now I’m talking to you, I’m picking up a bit of your accent – and this happens all the time. So it’s very difficult now to do a Henry Higgins and say ‘I know exactly where you come from’. You can do it a bit, but it’s harder than it used to be.


TSOTA: Do you think we lose some of our identity as our accents become more individual?
DC: I don’t think so. The identities have simply become more complex as time has gone by. We’ve still got our identity, even if our accent isn’t as pure as it used to be. I know who I am, regardless of the fact that I’ve got these different elements in my accent.

Having said that, it is a bit of a problem for some people. On the ‘You Say Potato’ website [where you can record your own pronunciation of ‘potato’], a number of people, when they’re recording, have a difficulty. We ask them to say: ‘Hello, my name is ___, and I’m from ___, and this is how I say ‘potato’.’ And some people go: ‘Hello, my name’s ___, well, now, um, hang on, well I’ve lived in such and such a place, and…’ – they have real difficulty trying to identify themselves, because they’ve moved around so much. So there is that element in it now; the identities are there, but a lot of people are confused about it.


TSOTA: You and Ben have done some fascinating work on the Original Pronunciation (OP) of Shakespeare’s works.
DC: It’s probably the biggest accent movement in the last few years. People are doing OP productions all over the place, especially in America. We’ve been so much in demand. Someone’ll say we want to do King Lear in OP, can you help? Well, we’ve only got so much time! So Ben’s just formed his own theatre company, the Crystal Ensemble, to try to take this forward.


TSOTA: How did you go about figuring out how people spoke in Shakespearean times? Where do you start?
DC: There’s all sorts of evidence. First you look at the rhymes that don’t work in modern English that must have worked in Shakespeare’s time – otherwise he was a lousy poet. So in the sonnets, Shakespeare rhymes the word ‘love’ with the word ‘prove’, for instance. Well, what’s going on? Either it was luv and pruv or it was loove and proove, one or the other. That’s the sort of place you start. Then to sort things out a bit more you look at the people who wrote books about pronunciation at the time. People don’t realise this, but in the sixteenth century several people wrote accounts of how words were pronounced. So they give you some evidence. And the other big source is the spelling. Spelling wasn’t standard then; we’ve all got a sense of correct spelling now, but that’s very recent, eighteenth century. So in Shakespeare’s time you can use the spellings to figure out how some words were pronounced; people spelt pretty much as they pronounced. Then you put all this evidence together, and you get a version which – while it’s not definitely authentic, you can never know for sure – is certainly plausible. And people love it.


TSOTA: What’s the value of performing Shakespeare in OP?
DC: It brings you closer to Shakespeare. It’s like playing music on the original instruments: it brings you closer to the author or composer, it makes you feel that you’re reaching out to them in a way that otherwise might not be possible. Another thing is that it brings to light new readings of the play, meanings that have been obscured by the fact that time has gone by and pronunciation has changed; you get some fresh laughs, fresh puns coming out.

Ben says that when you do an OP production it makes the audience feel closer. When we were doing OP Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004, I was wondering around the audience, and at the interval I saw a bunch of inner-city London kids at the corner of the stage. I went over to them and said ‘How are you finding it, lads?’ And they said [drops into excellent stage-cockney] ‘Oh, it’s great, innit.’ And I said ‘Why’s it great?’ And one kid, he says ‘Cause normally, when you go to the theatre, they talk in posh, but this lot they’re talking like us.’ He felt that the play was part of him; it wasn’t distanced from him in the way that the old posh accents made them feel.


TSOTA: Could other writers be given the OP treatment?
DC: Oh, lots and lots. As many as you like. The Early Music people have got into OP as well. One of the big things that’s happened in the last few years is that people want to sing Dowland and Byrd and Purcell in the accent of the time – because there, too, rhymes don’t work and things like that. So you can do it with absolutely any author you like.


TSOTA: I know at one point Wordsworth, being a Cumbrian, rhymes ‘water’ with ‘matter’.
DC: Absolutely. That’s a Shakespearean rhyme as well, watter and matter. That carries on into the 18th century. When you read Wordsworth you find those little differences in pronunciation.


TSOTA: And finally: is it true that you read the King James Bible from cover to cover, twice?
DC: Ha, yes, that was for another book. When the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible came along, in 2011, Oxford asked me to write a book on the language of it. And the question they asked was, how many idioms are there in present-day English that come from the Bible? Like ‘thorn in the flesh’ and ‘fly in the ‘ointment’, that sort of thing. And I had no idea. Ten? Twenty? A hundred? A thousand? I hadn’t the foggiest idea. So I thought the only way to find out was to read the whole flipping thing… So I went through it and highlighted every time I came across an idiom [he eventually concluded that ‘only 18 expressions are unique to the King James Bible’]. There are about a million words in the Bible. Once I’d done it – it took about a week – I thought, ‘I may have missed some.’ So I did it again!


TSOTA: The whole Bible in a week!?
DC: Well, I wasn’t doing anything else. And a million words isn’t that much, really.

Richard Smyth


Follow David Crystal @davcr

Record your own accent via the You Say Potato website
Waterstones Leeds

Filed under: Written & Spoken Word