How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal

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How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Concise and erudite introduction to the study of language covering all basic aspects of language mechanics. Despite devoting slightly too much space to world's variety of language and foreign language learning, it would still be good as a first book on linguistics and a basic family reference tool. It is particularly good at showing how language works externally but it covers the all internal mechanics of language too.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0141015521

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How Language Works is a one-volume introduction to the science of linguistics by a British authority in the field, David Crystal. It covers all the basic and several not-so-basic aspects of mechanics of language in an accessible, succinct and often interesting way.

The book is organised on three broad levels: concerned with the medium of linguistic transmission (anatomy, physics and neurology of speech; differences between various modes of language like speech, sign language, writing and electronic media), grammar (structure of words and sentences) and semantics (analysis of meaning, including social, ethnic and national differences). Language acquisition by children is covered from several angles (phonology, vocabulary, grammar, social conventions) and there is also an overview of language families in the modern world, extinction of languages and issues relating to foreign language learning.

The biggest strength of How Language Works is probably also its biggest weakness. It covers an immense range of linguistic subjects and thus, virtually by default, on any given particular subject it is prone to being rather shallow. Overall, it is not: David Crystal manages to be brief but also engaging by skilful use of examples and - mostly - avoiding lists and definitions. Where such lists and definitions are given, How Language Works? slides into a slightly boring textbook mode, especially in the parts of the book relating to anatomy of vocal organs and the brain areas responsible for processing language data. This is, I think, forgivable, for the sake of completeness. The book is not particularly meant to be read continuously and when reading it for the first time or for the purposes of general enlighten it's perfectly possible to just note the existence of such lists without memorising or analysing the content.

I felt rather strongly that David Crystal gets more passionate the higher up in the hierarchy of language "levels" he gets. Yes, the phonology and neuroanatomy are covered, and so is basic morphology and syntax but it's at the level meanings, discourse and pragmatics (rules applying to language that relate to how it's used in social situations, not to its internal workings) that his real interest seems to be. In fact, over a quarter of the whole book is devoted to external aspects of the language, with 100 pages or so dedicated to the world's linguistic variety and teaching and learning foreign languages.

To be perfectly honest, I think these 100 pages could have been used better: particularly the foreign language teaching/learning chapters seemed to me to go beyond the natural borders of the subject matter (but that might be because I find teaching and learning foreign languages one of the most boring, if necessary, areas of language-related study). There are also a few parts of How Language Works where I would choose to allocate emphasis differently. I suspect this is a difference that originates in my background in psychology, interest in evolutionary psychology and the area of study broadly defined as "cognitive science". I am more interested in the underlying unity of languages then in their, often superficial if sometimes fascinating, variability. I think that language acquisition is a fascinating process that would benefit from presentation in one place of the book rather than be spread over several sections and I would place emphasis on how easy and natural is for children to learn the mechanics of natural language (the 90% grammatically correct by the age of 3 or so) rather than pointing out specific aspects that are learned as late as 10 years of age. But these are minor quibbles, differences of preference, which do not affect the usefulness of the book.

How Language Works is written in a transparent, clear, easy to approach style, with occasional instances of gentle, rather dry humour and enough examples to maintain interest but not as many as to drown the reader in unnecessary detail. Salient points are emphasised, summaries provided when necessary, but overall the book reads like a coherent exposition and doesn't have a chunked-up, shrug-your-arms-and-walk-away character of a textbook which is an achievement in itself for such a broad work.

As befits what is essentially a descriptive, almost reference text, How Language Works is a bit bland. On many issues, David Crystal is rather too noncommittal (noticing controversy but not taking a stance) for my liking, but then it's not a polemical work. Argument and passion are not particularly noticeable in How Language Works as it mostly relates accepted facts of linguistics.

On some subjects How Language Works gets passionate, though. Professor Crystal seems to have very strong and clear feelings about the preserving and revitalising of dying/extreme minority languages. His selection of argument and quotes almost managed to persuade this reviewer, normally not worried about extinctions of any kind, as to the utmost importance of such work.

I was also glad to see the defence of the greengrocer's apostrophe and more generally, a deserved tap on the fingers of the prescriptivist obsessives.

There is good cross-referencing, a decent index and a further reading list. With its extremely broad scope and accessible but not dumbed-down delivery, How Language Works will provide a good starting point to the study of language, particularly to a reader interested in the workings of language who has minimal previous knowledge of linguistics. Three personal stars as I prefer my language books with a more psychological focus and less ethnographic one, but undoubtedly four bookbag stars for a great one-stop launchpad for language study.

Our thanks to the publishers for sending this book.

Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct is an even better book: a fascinating, passionate and entertaining account of language phenomenon from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. I hope you will read it next.

There is even some fiction that discusses similar subjects in David Lodge's campus comedy of sexual mores and cognitive science called Thinks!

And finally, if you'd rather follow the prescriptive approach presented in an entertaining way for children, have a look at Lynn Truss' Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! You might also appreciate Wordcatcher: An Odyssey into the World of Weird and Wonderful Words by Phil Cousineau. We think there are better ways of learning a foreign language than this book.

Booklists.jpg How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal is in the Top Ten Books About Language.

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Buy How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal at Amazon.com.

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