By David Crystal
Hilary and I asked ourselves this question repeatedly when we were planning the tour that we eventually wrote up as Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain. Where can you find out about the places that influenced the character and study of the English language in Britain? How do you get there? And what do you find when you get there?
Places are often mentioned in textbooks and historical accounts, but you can get only so much out of such drab statements as ‘the Anglo-Saxons arrived at Pegwell Bay in 449 AD’, or ‘King Alfred defeated the Danes at Edington in 878’, or ‘ Dr Johnson compiled his dictionary in the attic of a house in Gough Square in London’. For textbook writers, that is usually the end of the story. For us, it was the beginning. What was that coastline like? What was the battlefield like? What was the attic like?
Pegwell Bay, Edington, Maldon, Lindisfarne, Lichfield, Stratford … We went to over 50 places where something important happened. Most of the time, we found that the relevance of the language to the place had been forgotten – if it had ever been realised. But there are a few spots where it is remembered. There is even the occasional monument. Our favourite is the memorial to English dialect-writers in Rochdale, Lancashire. A runner-up is the huge monument to Bible-translator William Tyndale, in North Nibley in Gloucestershire – though ‘runner-up’ is perhaps not the best way of describing it, as it is is on the top of a hill which takes some climbing.
That’s a point. If you want to be an English-language tourist, you have to be fit, or reasonably so, as some of the places where important things happened involve a bit of a walk, and sometimes over quite muddy and hilly countryside. So you should take boots too. But the outcome is always worth it. Even though I thought I knew some of the places very well, from my past reading and writing about the language, I was never prepared for what we found when we made the actual visit. The photographs often tell the story better than the words, and are an essential part of the narrative. It confirmed me in my feeling that the English language is not only diverse and fascinating, but unpredictable and exciting as well. For instance…
In Jarrow, up in the north-east of England, where Bede worked and wrote, we were not expecting to encounter a class of mini-monks all dressed in tiny habits. In Alloway, Scotland we were not expecting to see the worship of Scots national poet Robert Burns extend to his being portrayed in a mischievous re-creation of Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’. In Old St Pancras churchyard in London, we were not expecting to find piles of gravestones to be part of the story of pronunciation lexicographer John Walker. In York, we were not expecting to find the aftermath of lead-thieves, when we visited the places where Lindley Murray wrote his grammar.
With locations as far apart as the south-east of Kent and the Scottish lowlands, and from the west of Wales to the East Anglian coast, Hilary and I drove several thousand miles to compile what proved to be a somewhat unorthodox combination of English language history and travelogue. It was a hugely rewarding experience, though, which added a strong sense of place to our existing knowledge of language topics and personalities, and we strongly recommend doing the same sort of thing in your own locality, wherever you live, as a powerful way of making language study come alive. Field trips are not just for historians, geographers, and archaeologists. The English language lurks around every corner, in every country in the world, awaiting your call.
David Crystal is known throughout the world as a writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster on language. Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain by David and Hilary Crystal published on 26 September 2013 by Oxford University Press. Follow @davcr on Twitter and use #languagetourist to join the discussion. You can see an interactive map of British locations that shaped the English language on the OxfordWords blog.
This post originally appeared on The Lingua File and is reproduced with permission.
Image credits: Both images © Hilary Crystal, from Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain.