David Crystal: “A language changes to reflect society”


Last Friday the Directorate-General for Translation of the European Parliament had the honour to receive none other than the eminent linguist David Crystal: the foremost writer and lecturer on the English language. In an overcrowded Hemicycle the professor enlightened our minds with a brilliant lecture with the title ‘Whose English?’

David Crystal

Professor David Crystal, who has a worldwide reputation and written over 100 books, brought together a wide range of experts and translators from all the EU Institutions eager to learn more about the future of one of the most spoken languages worldwide. “But, how many people actually speak English?”, asked the Professor. “The answer is always the same: we have no idea”.

To predict the future evolution of a language it is crucial to understand not only the present but also the past, taking the cultural background fully into account. And that is precisely why it is so important to keep our eyes and ears wide open in order to know what is going on in India and China nowadays, where we notice the most significant evolution of the English language.

So, half joking but firm, Professor Crystal confirmed what we were all trying to guess: it is impossible to gauge how many people speak English. Firstly, because it is impossible to keep worldwide statistics; and secondly, because it is extremely difficult to define what exactly ‘English speaker’ means. Let alone the definitions of first language, second language, mother tongue, native speaker, etc. What level of fluency counts in this respect?

David CrystalAccording to Crystal, whether someone is fluent in a language also depends on the context. As illustrated in the lecture, what about a bellman who only knows 3 figures of speech which allow him to develop his work successfully, isn´t he fluent? Yes, he is.

In any case, what is undoubtedly true is that English is a global language: It plays a predominant role in areas such as technology, trade, industry, politics, culture and the economy; around 400 million people have it as their mother tongue, and another 1.5 billion people worldwide speak and use English for communicating according to statistics. But what happens to a language which becomes global?

As Professor Crystal pointed out, once a country has been conquered and a foreign language imposed, that nation will look for its own identity. In other words, the new language is adopted and adapted. That is how ‘localisms’ and language variations are born. Thus, despite having the same roots, American English is not the same as the English spoken in South Africa, Australia, or India. Which one is the ‘correct one’? Fascinatingly, all of them are; we cannot consider even the most seemingly obvious grammar mistake as such when it is being made nationwide. It is not a mistake anymore: it has entered into the daily usage as a reflection of national or local identity, a means of cultural understanding. Just as we humans do, our language also adapts to new needs.

As the acclaimed lecturer wisely remarked: quote2

Thank you Mr. Crystal


Written by Ana Baudot Morcillo – Journalist and Social media manager.
Communication Trainee, DG TRAD – Terminology Coordination Unit