Let’s Talk: How English conversation works

David Crystal (Oxford University Press, 2020), 224pp, £18.99
ISBN 978 0 19 885069 4

Reviewed by Alice Horne

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Like many a conversation, Let’s Talk begins with a greeting – the singular being rather important, Crystal explains, as greeting the same person twice would often be considered rude. What follows is an insightful analysis of how we talk to each other, taking us all the way from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History to Twitter, during which I often found myself more surprised by what hasn’t changed than what has.

This survey of the conversation evoked quite a few intrigued ‘ahh’s and pensive ‘mmm’s from me. (Such noises, which are an important part of successful conversation, are called simultaneous feedback.) I didn’t realise, for instance, that some irritating habits such as the overused ‘like’ or a rising tone (uptalk) actually have very valid purposes. ‘Like’ can be either a quotative (introducing a quotation) or add ‘exclamatory force’, while uptalk can be used as a ‘comprehension check’: ‘I’m reviewing a book by David Crystal’ – with a high rising tone = ‘I’m asking if you know who David Crystal is’. This gives the listener an opportunity to ask for clarification and, as such, plays quite an important social function.

But what of the written conversation? We’re editors after all. The majority of Let’s Talk focuses explicitly on very natural, real-world dialogue with short intonational units and littered with the kind of fuzziness (‘some kind of’, ‘and things’) and comment clauses (‘you know’, ‘I mean’) that many editors would be thanked for ironing out. Indeed, Crystal demonstrates that even dialogue by Harold Pinter – the dramatist praised highly for his ‘tape recorder ear’ – doesn’t capture the true vagaries of natural speech. As a result, despite its interesting snippets, Let’s Talk is fairly limited in its usefulness for editors of written conversation.

That said, some of the fuzziness of natural conversation can be used to great effect in the most lauded literature: the nurse in Romeo and Juliet is a prolific user of comment clauses, for example, and Crystal shows with deftness and humour how they help to create her character. And it’s not just literature, either. More formal comment clauses such as ‘to be frank’ or ‘it would seem’ are quite at home in academic writing, their purpose being ‘to soften the force of their generalizations, or to deflect a potential criticism of overstatement’.

Within written conversation Crystal includes, of course, digitally mediated dialogue. Among his astute observations is the change in usage of ‘LOL’ which, rather than signifying genuine out-loud laughter, is now ‘usually simply a marker of amusement, sometimes of irony or sarcasm’. The nuances in its usage and potential for offence (‘I really love you lol’), Crystal hypothesises, have led many to abandon it entirely in favour of the more straightforward ‘hahaha’.

With equal measures of insight and wit, Let’s Talk is a fascinating, light-hearted read for the curious amateur linguist. It might not change much about how you edit dialogue, but it will definitely change how you think about the way we talk.

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