'A Little Book of Language': How we say what we say, and why
A review of David Crystal's "A Little Book of Language," an erudite and accessible guide to language and its crucial role in human development.
Special to The Seattle Times
'A Little Book of Language'
by David Crystal
Yale University Press, 272 pp., $25
How many words do you think you know? 1,000? 5,000? 50,000? An average teenager knows around 20,000 words. We learn new words throughout our lives, especially as we devote ourselves to a particular trade or hobby, each of which has its own lexicon. At the most basic level, words allow us to communicate, to express our ideas to one another. But we also employ language to create an identity, express emotions, avoid embarrassment, build social relationships and help us think. The ability to speak is certainly one of the most important aspects of human evolution.
Few people know more or write better about language than Welshman David Crystal. He is the author of "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language" as well as many less scholarly books such as "Txtng: the Gr8 Db8" and "Just a Phrase I'm Going Through," an autobiography. His books have revealed the wonders and complexities of language in a witty, erudite and approachable style. Such is the case in his newest volume, " A Little Book of Language."
"A Little Book" runs the gamut of language, from baby babble to Internet babble. Each of the 40 chapters is a short essay with topics such as spelling, accents, slang and etymology. The book can be read in order, and chapters do build on each other, but they can also be read randomly — except for the first 8 or 9, which focus on how we learn language. These are my favorite chapters, filled with fun observations and facts. For example, at nine months of age babies are so in tune with language that a person listening to a baby babbling can tell whether the child is French, English, or Chinese, based on rhythm and intonation.
"A Little Book of Language" is a paean to language in all its guises. Crystal has clearly thought long and hard about his subject. Although he is at times a bit simplistic and obvious, he is always revealing and thought-provoking.