Book Review: ‘You Say Potato’ by Ben & David Crystal

Growing up in the South East of England I never thought much about accents. Dad and I would joke around every now and then (we do a fantastically horrific generic ‘northern’ accent), I encountered American English through TV like most English kids, and I had a go at doing an Australian accent after visiting there for the first time in 2008, but nothing made me aware of my own accent more than going to university. Being a Midlands uni, Nottingham has students coming from all over the country, and your accent is a common focus of conversation and joking. You begin to realise how much your accent can define your identity, and how different the way you say things can be from someone who speaks the same first language as you.

This kind of experience ties in perfectly with the Crystals’ new book, only released at the end of 2014. As with ‘Confronting the Classics’, (subject of my previous book review) I got this book unexpectedly for Christmas, and I very much enjoyed it. The kind of things the book talks about sits well with my own study of English at university, but the authors never stray too far into academia.

It is the collaboration of David Crystal and his son, Ben, that makes this book particularly excellent. The chapters are more or less written alternately by them, ensuring that the book never becomes monotonous. David is a very successful linguist, so from him you get things like the history of accents, the phonetics of different accents and that sort of thing, and from Ben, an actor and producer, you get more of his personal experience with accents as an actor. Ben gives examples of how his accent has changed over his life, and how the nature of the accents that he has to speak in his various jobs have changed over the years.

Sometimes the two of them both contribute in the same chapter, and they mark with an initial when the other author is taking over. These sections are, in my opinion, the best parts of the book. They have a familiar, conversational tone as Ben and David talk to each other on the pages of the book. A similar dialogue method is used in other chapters, particularly those written by Ben as he transcribes conversations he’s had with people about their experiences with accents. One of the best examples of this is a conversation (more of an interview, really) that he had with his agent, as he asked her about her opinion on the way that the use of accents is changing in the accent business. In this way, the Crystals get other voices and opinions in their book that keep it lively and fresh.

I think that this book has the great quality of being accessible to everyone, from novices to those who have already studied linguistics (I speak as someone in the middle of that range). Where there is jargon it is explained, but there are good meaty sections of history and phonetics that should keep more experienced readers entertained whilst not going over the heads of those newer to the field.

The book also has a social message about how we react to different accents. What they’re saying here is important, and makes you think, linking to the theme of accents and identity. I can’t help but feel, however, that it would have been a good idea to make this angle of the book more obvious from the start, as it does seem to come in as a bit of an afterthought here and there, and it was a little way in before I realised the point they were trying to make.

That’s a minor point, however, and this is a book that I really enjoyed. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the topic, however much experience they’ve had with it. Between Ben and David there are a lot of different aspects of this book to appeal to a wide range of interests, from Ben’s discussion of his experiences acting Shakespeare over the years, to David’s look at what the future of the accents of the English language might be.

The book, though lacking a bit of direction here and there, is funny, thoughtful, interesting and easy-to-read; I can’t recommend it highly enough.

My rating: 8/10

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