David Crystal's 'A Little Book of Language,' reviewed by Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, June 3, 2010


By David Crystal

Yale Univ. 260 pp. $25

Five years ago, Yale published Ernst Gombrich's "A Little History of the World." Its text, intended for children, was originally written in German during the 1930s, but Gombrich -- one of the greatest art historians of our time -- slightly revised its 40 chapters for the English edition. He died in 2001, at age 92, and, alas, never saw the finished book.

"A Little History of the World" proved to be phenomenally successful, and not just among young people. Like the "Harry Potter" novels and the "Twilight" series, the book was read by many adults, who rightly admired its beautifully crafted and concise overview of humankind's past.

Recognizing a winning concept, Yale has now followed Gombrich's history with "A Little Book of Language," by the eminent and prolific linguist David Crystal. Best known for the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and "The Stories of English," Crystal here writes for the true beginner, but does so with his usual clarity and authority, as he ranges from ancient etymologies to modern text-messaging. The chapters -- again 40 of them -- are made doubly engaging by Jean-Manuel Duvivier's frolicsome, highly stylized black-and-white illustrations.

Crystal begins at the beginning, with baby talk. He notes, for instance, that a newborn can already recognize its mother's voice. In one experiment, scientists "put a teat into the baby's mouth and wire it up to a counter. The baby sucks away at a steady rate. When it hears the dog, man, and woman sounds, the sucking speeds up a bit and then slows down. But when it hears the mother's voice it sucks like crazy! It recognizes her!" That gosh-wow tone is, I suspect, one of the few signs that "A Little Book of Language" is directed primarily toward young readers. While Crystal sometimes quotes Shakespeare and Dickens, he refers just as often to J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett. One chapter describes Grimm's Law -- the way that Latin "pater" becomes German "Vater" and English "father" -- but never mentions Jakob Grimm (of fairytale fame), who first noted this pattern. Indeed, apart from passing references to the slang expert Eric Partridge and to Sir William Jones -- who promulgated the idea that many European languages, as well as Sanskrit, derive from ancient Indo-European -- this book resolutely focuses on the most basic elements of linguistic study. There's nothing in the least academic or pretentious about it.

Two early chapters examine just how our throats and mouths make sounds; other sections take up the reasons for grammar and explain some of the idiosyncrasies of English spelling. There are plenty of no-nonsense definitions throughout: Sentences "help us to make sense of words." That, emphasizes Crystal, "is what sentences are for." Vivid anecdotes clarify important points: "The day I kill three buffaloes and draw them as three dead animals on my cave wall, I'm being an artist. But the day I kill three buffaloes and invent a sign for them (such as {$181}={$181}) and mark up on my cave-wall '{$181}={$181} 111,' then I'm being a writer."

Factoids abound throughout this latest "little book": There are, for instance, around 6,000 languages in the world. However, without some effort toward preservation, roughly half of them will die out in the next 100 years. Did you know that nearly three-quarters of the human race grows up learning two or more languages? Today, "in half the primary schools in Inner London, over half of the pupils do not speak English as a mother tongue." Because there are competing sign-systems for the deaf, when the play "Children of a Lesser God" -- about a teacher and his deaf student -- was staged in London, "British deaf people couldn't understand the signs, and they had to employ an interpreter to translate from American into British Sign Language."

In other chapters, Crystal tells us about the origin of geographical place names and our own personal names. "The word 'nickname,' " we learn, "first began to be used in the Middle Ages, where it was originally an 'an eke name.' 'Eke' (pronounced 'eek') meant 'also.' A nickname was an extra name, showing a special relationship." There are several excellent pages on how to use a dictionary (though Crystal refrains from making any particular lexical recommendations). Later sections on computer slang and texting duly remind the censorious that people have always used abbreviations and playful neologisms. Many adults, Crystal writes, will remember the meaning of the apparent gobbledygook of "YY U R YY U B I C U R YY 4 ME." Read properly, this means "too wise you are, too wise you be, I see you are too wise for me." He also discusses puns -- "You shouldn't write with a broken pencil because it's pointless" -- and palindromes ("Madam, I'm Adam") and other word games.

Words may be used for play or poetry or persuasion, and Crystal reminds us that one important reason for studying language "is to make ourselves aware of the way people often try to manipulate our thoughts and feelings by the way they speak and write." Hence, the very same action may be described as "Terrorists Move South" or "Freedom Fighters Move South." In its closing chapters, "A Little Book of Language" proceeds to focus on linguistics itself, a discipline whose students don't necessarily try to learn lots of languages but instead aim to discover just how those languages work.

At the end of his book, Crystal lists six causes that are important to him and that he hopes will become important to his readers:

1) The preservation of dying languages.

2) The appreciation of minority languages, those spoken only by small groups of people.

3) The pleasure of learning at least smatterings of languages other than English.

4) A greater appreciation of the variety -- the dialects and accents -- within one's own native tongue.

5) The importance of knowing many styles of English, from the most formal to the slangiest.

6) The need to help people who, for whatever reason, have difficulty in learning to speak or write.

Like Gombrich's "A Little History of the World," Crystal's "A Little Book of Language" may be for children (of all ages, as the saying goes), yet it's by no means childish or juvenile. In other words, buy it for your son or daughter, but read it yourself.

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