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How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die

by David Crystal

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 2006
ISBN: 1-58567-848-1
Publisher: Overlook

A virtual encyclopedia of language, so broad in scope that its subtitle can only hint at its contents.

British linguist Crystal, editor of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and author of numerous other works on language, is writing here for the interested layman as well as the language maven. He touches on just about every aspect of language: the physiology behind the formation of speech sounds; how we learn to speak, read and write; how we choose what to say; how the brain handles language; how language tells who we are and where we’re from; how languages evolve. His approach is always to explain “how,” every chapter starting with that word. After beginning with spoken and written language, with a brief look at computer-mediated communication, he moves on to sign language; the structure of language; dialects; the various families of languages; and multilingualism. Following this order is not necessary, however, for Crystal advises that each short chapter is self-contained and the sequencing is up to the reader. While not quite a reference book, its index enables it to function as one, as do the illustrations, e.g., the diagrams of the human throat, ear and brain; the charts of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian pictograms in the section on writing systems; the depiction of British and American finger spelling in the section on sign language; the Indo-European language tree that demonstrates language relationships. Other language professionals may quibble with the brevity of his treatment of specific topics and argue with some of his opinions about the descriptive-vs.-prescriptive approach to the study of language; for the general reader, however, it is a user-friendly introduction to the many hitherto-unthought-of aspects of language.

Packed with information, memorable anecdotes and surprising statistics, all presented with assurance and enthusiasm.