How language works, by David Crystal

How Language Works, by David Crystal
Behind this plain cover lurks an immense wealth of information about language

Considering that I picked this up as a Penguin Classics edition from Borders for $10 minus the 40% discount, How Language Works is both a much more recent work (2007), and a heck of a lot more comprehensive than I thought it would be – hence you’ll have noticed that this title was my “Currently reading” title for at least the last several months.

Within 73 chapters across almost 500 pages, David Crystal crams in an overview of practically every single scrap of human endeavour relating to language. From where languages came from, how they’re structured and how we use them, no curiosity is left unsatisfied. If you had any question as to where your interest in languages might lie, by the end of this book you will be in absolutely no doubt.

Though biblically epic, and at times just as boring (the chapters listing out the languages and their families is about as riveting as the book of Numbers detailing the genealogy of the Abrahamic faiths) there is plenty to interest the casual reader. Maybe it’s the phase I’m at in life, but I found Crystal’s many insights into how children learn language to be especially interesting:

In the middle of the third year, there is a significant shift in procedure. Children start asking lots of questions about the names of things: What’s that?, What’s that called? Parents usually do quite well in replying to these opening questions, but they tend not to be so good in answering the follow-up ones, many of which begin with ‘Why?”: Why is it a jackdaw? Most people cannot answer, other than wearily and emptily: Because that’s its name, Because it is. We find it difficult to say such things as Because it’s a bird and it’s black, as that is not how we are used to using the word because. But it is precisely such details that the child is hoping to hear.

There are also many questions to pique the reader’s curiosity, although few are satisfactorily answered, e.g. How many syllables are in the word meteor?

Each chapter covers what must be an entire field of study, which makes for a mind-boggling exercise reading with any kind of speed. It brings to mind looking out the window of a bullet train as it passes by a train station. Endlessly fascinating, but you only get the merest glimpse – even if something catches your eye, it won’t pause for lengthier consideration, like this passage condensing the entire history of typography into a single paragraph:

In Europe, the main step forward came in the mid-15th century, with the invention in Germany of movable metal type in association with the hand-operated printing press – developments that are generally credited to Johannes Gutenberg (1390 – 1468). Metal type was set by hand  until the introduction of various systems of mechanized typesetting in the 19th century. The linotype machine was introduced towards the end of the century, and became standard in newspaper offices. Techniques of photo-composition became a commercial reality in the 1950s. Computerized typesetting began to be used from the late 1960s. The prototype of the typewriter was built in 1867 by the American inventory Christopher Latham Sholes (1819 -90), and rapidly achieved popularity. Modern developments include the electric typewriter, the word processor, the use of the telephone keypad to send messages, and the computer keyboard – now the preferred mode of graphic expression for most young people.

In case you didn’t catch it, he was talking about SMS text-messaging using mobile phones somewhere in there – phew!

In my day job as “Editor-in-Chief” and as a blogger, I tend to fall in with the crowd that loves pointing out whenever somebody has put an apostrophe wrong, or has spelt a word incorrectly. Given its nature, you’d expect this book to support this cause, but David Crystal is surprisingly critical of the emerging zero-tolerance attitude, and has an especially scathing message to those he calls “Trussians” (after Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves) – in a section titled “Potato’s as a test case”, Crystal explains that there is little basis, historically or linguistically, for criticising what seems to be an incorrect use of the apostrophe since it represents a class of specific exceptions in the way that we pluralise words English, and also that it was a perfectly acceptable form until the 1700’s. He chides us by saying “to condemn someone for using such forms as potato’s is actually to display linguistic ignorance – an ignorance of the logic behind such forms which the modern users are unconsciously manifesting.”

Overall, a very interesting if epic read. Plus, you seriously can’t argue the bang-per-buck, even at the full price of $9.95.

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