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Actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry

Fry's English Delight: Interview with Michael Rundell

Michael Rundell was a studio guest in Stephen Fry's radio show about the English language.

Macmillan Dictionary's Editor-in-Chief Michael Rundell was interviewed by actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry in the new series of his radio programme Fry's English Delight.

In the episode called 'Words without End' Stephen Fry talked to Michael about the ever-expanding vocabulary of English and how dictionaries keep abreast of language change.

You can listen to a short clip of the episode.

Episodes of the series will also be available later on the BBC website.

Meet Michael Rundell

So Michael, you're a studio guest on Fry's English Delight. Tell me, what delights you about the English language?

Language is an amazing human creation, and languages in general are inherently delightful. One of the things that makes English especially fascinating is its diversity. This is the result of over a thousand years of change: first, the waves of migrations into the UK, from the Anglo-Saxons to the present day, then the effects of colonization and the spread of English worldwide. All of this movement and cultural interchange has given contemporary English an unusually wide range of vocabulary, yet despite that, we haven't reached the point (predicted by some) where different varieties of the language are mutually incomprehensible. Some of this is discussed on the radio programme – for example, we hear about developments in Indian English and about the way New Zealand English is influenced by Maori.

There are more non-native English speakers now compared to native English speakers. What effect does this have on the English language do you think? And is this something to be worried about?

Editor-in-Chief Michael Rundell

I don't think we should be 'worried about' languages unless they're in danger of extinction. Languages change but there's always the imperative that people have to understand one another, so – as with other social conventions – the system is self-regulating. Of course, we need to be aware of developments in other Englishes, outside what we traditionally call the 'English-speaking world'. There are signs, for instance, of 'new' usages which are quite widespread in European bodies (such as the EU, or universities where much of the teaching is in English), but which don't conform to native-speaker norms. Our blog series on the 'Dominance of English' explores some of these issues.

Why do languages change, and is there anything we can do about it?

There are a number of different factors that drive language change. If you look at the new material in the Macmillan Dictionary following our most recent update, you can see some of these mechanisms at work. Stan Carey shows how developments in technology have not only meant that new words have had to be coined to describe new things, but that many existing words need their descriptions altered or expanded. Here, language change follows changes in the world around us: if meetings no longer require participants to be in the same physical location, the 'meaning' of meeting has altered, and the dictionary record needs to keep pace with that. Other 'new' vocabulary (such as otaku or chit fund) reflects influences from around the world. The so-called 'principle of least effort' affects language as much as other human activity, and we see this in the rise of short forms such as merch or OH; in English's fondness for 'verbing' nouns (leading to new verbs such as showroom and jailbreak); and in the increasing use of 'of' as the preposition of choice following bored. (This will feature in a blog post soon.)

Is there anything we can do about language change? Well, a point which comes up in the radio programme is that English has no equivalent of the national academies (like the Académie française) which regulate the way the language develops – or rather, attempt to regulate it, usually without much success. I think English is fortunate in having a strong tradition of evidenced-based dictionaries, but without the artificial restraints which an academy might impose on the natural development of the language. So there's no cause for concern about language change – we should just enjoy it!

How do you ensure that the Macmillan Dictionary stays up to date?

Updating a dictionary means being aware of emerging vocabulary and of changes in the way existing words are being used. And once a new item is on our radar, we have to make a judgement about how widespread its use is, and whether it's likely to last. (Needless to say, we can't get it right all the time.) It's always been part of a lexicographer's job to keep an eye out for new usages, but technology now provides a huge amount of support. With our large language corpora, Kerry Maxwell's weekly BuzzWords column, access to social media, and the hundreds of crowd-sourced entries in the Open Dictionary, we're much better placed to stay abreast of language change than earlier generations of dictionary-makers.

Stephen Fry is well-known for his interest in both language and new technology. What else did you talk about?

We had a long and interesting discussion (not all of which found its way into the radio programme). Stephen is a real polymath with a tremendously wide range of interests. But language, with all its diversity and idiosyncracies, is something that clearly excites him. It's always nice to talk to someone who is so enthusiastic about words, and who views language change as something to celebrate rather than get upset about. I showed him some of the functions of our corpus-analysis software on my iPad, and explained how we used this data as a basis for compiling dictionaries. And we talked a bit about cricket, too – another of Stephen's passions (and mine).