Shrewsbury School

Professor David Crystal: Let’s Talk about Conversation

Thursday 4 March 2021

On Tuesday 23rd February, the Sidney Society enjoyed a thought-provoking lecture from Professor David Crystal, pivoting on the findings of his 2020 book, Let’s Talk: How English Conversation Works.

Professor Crystal is renowned in the field of linguistics and has written 120 books on the matter, as well as having appeared on the radio and lectured at the Universities of Bangor and Reading.

A keen audience of sixty, consisting by parents and pupils, was introduced to his initial findings surrounding the difficulty of recording genuine conversation. He revealed that through his cunning and craft he would secretly record friends at his house in conversation and disclose only later that he had done so, granting him undiluted, natural dialogue to study. The role of interruptions in conversation he found, more often than not, to be established on agreement and affirmation rather than contention. The formal structuring and syntax of the written sentence is abandoned in conversation, he told us, with conversation composed of “topic chunks” lacking distinct full stops. He substantiated this assertion with the evidence that one of his friends had spoken a near five-minute sentence on one occasion, whilst being recorded!

Professor Crystal went on to explain the fact that the placement and intonation of words is critical in understanding the meaning of sentences in conversation. Additionally, our proclivity to devise words of our own like “thingamabob” and use filler phrases such as “like” or “sort of”, are indicative of our innate fear of silence. He stressed the importance of conversation as a reciprocal act, and one in which assessment and feedback, often through single words, is constant from both parties. Therefore, the zoom environment, he suggested, was almost antithetical to natural conversation.

When asked whether, because of his studies, he was an expert conversationalist, Professor Crystal replied that because of his fascination with the way conversation works, he often finds himself listening to how people say things, rather than what they say, and is less willing to participate himself!

back to top