September 2006

Shaun Manning


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

In How Language Works, David Crystal maps out a comprehensive introduction to oral and written communication, from the physical properties of humans that allow us to speak, to the nuanced evolution of language itself. Throughout the book, Crystal artfully defines his topic in terms accessible to the general reader yet transferable should one decide to delve into linguistics more deeply. The result is a volume that will foster an appreciation for the uncommon complexity of language, and a wonder at the similarities and differences between communication systems.

How Language Works begins, appropriately, by defining the boundaries of the subject. To Crystal, "speech is the primary manifestation of language, in all cultures," but he counts writing and signing as relevant members of the category. "Body language," however, is out, due to its limited range of possible meanings and lack of structural complexity. This may offend some readers' democratic sensibilities, but Crystal's reasoning convinces, as he lays out the differences between language-proper and other useful forms of communication.

Early chapters cover the science of speech: how the vocal chords function, the tonal properties of speech, and the various mechanisms involved in hearing what has been said. Crystal also provides a compelling exploration of vowels, consonants, and how we interpret combinations of such sounds -- this may not sound fascinating at first pass, but the unexpected discoveries a reader can make just by mouthing out Crystal's test cases are quite enlightening.

From here, Crystal examines the history of writing, and the terminology used to link written expressions of language to spoken words. There is also some exploration of the differences between the skills used in reading and spelling, and the methods used to teach children grammar. The author then rounds out the survey portion of the book by devoting a few chapters to sign language, noting common misconceptions and supporting the view that signing is a viable alternative to conventional language and not simply an advanced form of gestural communication.

The second half of the book, though, is where things get really interesting. Having covered what language is and how it is physically produced and interpreted, Crystal begins to examine the nature of meaning. This includes an illuminating tour of everyday vocabulary and the methods we use to predict what sort of words will come next in a particular sequence, such as "it was a very auspicious..." The author also looks at how children pick up language, the cultural indicators buried in a person's speech, and the myriad courses a language can take in its evolution from an ancestral language family to the last speaker of a given tongue.

On the topic of language change, though, Crystal takes a sour step when he dismisses the prescriptivist approach to language out of hand. Throughout the later chapters, he posits that the job of a linguist is to observe and record, rather than pass judgment upon, the state of language at a given point of time; he believes that "languages do not get better or worse when they change," and lays out a very passionate defense of this approach. Thus Crystal places himself in the descriptivist camp, which looks at a language for what it is without bias as to what it should be. The problem comes in how carelessly he bats away the alternative viewpoint, setting up a straw-man argument to represent the other side of this very heated debate. Crystal cites Lynne Truss's peeve in Eats, Shoots & Leaves regarding the "green-grocer's apostrophe," wherein a would-be plural word is presented as a possessive, such as "potato's." Crystal defends such usage on the grounds that the reader can understand the meaning, and turns the question into one of economic class, refusing to condemn the spelling of those who have not had "the right kind of opportunity... to learn standard English well." Fair enough. But by Crystal's own standards, that there be no "loss of clarity," there are several ready examples that may represent a devolution of language. One such case would be the classic versus popular meanings of "begs the question." The original sense had a very specific meaning, for which there is no other succinct coinage; the more common usage is a redundant interjection, an unnecessary placeholder between wanting to ask a question and actually asking it. Crystal would have to maintain that this change is neutral, and it would have been helpful to see how he would address such cases.

But perhaps debate is not Crystal's purpose in writing How Language Works. Perhaps his method is, more subtly, to combat the prescriptive approach to linguistics at its root by laying out what language is, how it came to be, and where it's going. Dropped into the rich historical and sociological context of this volume, it is difficult not to get caught up in the author's enthusiasm. If we are drawn into the wonder of language itself, the nuances of spelling become as fascinating as the subtleties of dialect; these all become facets to study and explore.

How Language Works by David Crystal
The Overlook Press
ISBN: 1585678481
512 pages