'A Little Book of Language'

Linguistics 101

by Megan Stride

10 November 2010

For those who aren't quite so specialized in their love of words, and particularly those who are just beginning to explore the land of language, this gentle, basic introduction to the world of linguistics may be the best bet.
cover art

A Little Book of Language

David Crystal

(Yale University Press)
US: Jun 2010

Golly, there sure are oodles of ways to study language. As David Crystal tells us in his delightfully approachable A Little Book of Language there are grammarians and semanticists, sociolinguists and philologists, phoneticians and psycholinguists.

For those who aren’t quite so specialized in their love of words, and particularly those who are just beginning to explore the land of language, a gentle, basic introduction to the world of linguistics may be the best bet. Crystal’s A Little Book of Language serves up that 101-level of study with a heavy helping of charm and nary a dash of condescension.

Sections on the very fundamentals – an explanation of what a dialect is, for example, or of why vibration in one’s vocal folds is necessary for speech – may seem a bit slow to the older reader, but trickier facts pop up to pull us back in on almost every page. This reviewer had no idea that the world’s citizens presently speak around 6,000 languages, for example, or that half of those language are likely to disappear forever – when the very last speaker dies – over the next 100 years or so.

This is an especially troubling statistic to Crystal, and by the time she’s finished it will most likely be disturbing for the reader, as well. Naturally, language is a diffintive aspect of our humanity. Humans invented the craft of writing “several times over”, in different areas of the world, the reader learns, and Crystal stresses that all languages give individuals and communities a valuable sense of identity.

The book is far from doom and gloom, though. A playful chapter on slang describes it as “a secret language”, a form of speech people use when they want to be considered part of a group. Linguists love collecting slang, Crystal writes, comparing the tendency to stamp collecting and bird watching. Slang words are hard to track, as they’re very localized and go out of style quickly – note the examples at the start of this review – which often requires linguists to travel to unfamiliar environments, like high school hallways for Crystal and the “shady” backstreets of London for Eric Partridge, another language scholar.

Crystal makes the important distinction between slang and Standard English, noting t the latter is really the only acceptable dialect in most professional forums, and using it well doesn’t come naturally. Fluency in Standard English requires hard work and, most importantly, access to good schooling, and a slippery grip on its grammar and usage can keep people from landing the jobs and some levels of social power they may crave.

The tone of the book is congratulatory and encouraging throughout. Crystal loves his craft, and he wants his readers to love it, too. He stresses the importance of language on large and small scales, urging readers to “fight the temptation” to neglect looking up the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Though a heavyweight language specialist – with several books on linquistics under his belt and an honorary professorship at Bangor University – Crystal proudly says that he himself still pulls out the dictionary nearly every day to get a grip on a word that escapes him.

Towards the end of A Little Book of Language, readers are treated to a warm – if, ahem, highly inaccurate – pat on the back when Crystal writes that “I am a linguist, and so are you, if you’ve read this far.”

Before sending people off to do their happy word hunting, Crystal begs them to tell their politicians to put more money into programs that research and save languages. The book’s new linguists should recognize the importance of minority languages and learn to speak more languages themselves, Crystal writes. Finally, readers ought to care about the dialects and range of styles that exist within their mother tongues, and be helpful for those who are struggling with any language.

Thankfully, the depth of Crystal’s love of language and his genuine appeal keep this send-off from reeking of junior high civics class, and the by the time readers reach the final chapter, they’ll likely be more than willing to oblige him.

A Little Book of Language


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