Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Little Book of Language

The title: A Little Book of Language
The author: David Crystal
Publication: Yale University Press, 2010
Got it from: The library

Two years ago I read another book by linguist David Crystal that I thoroughly enjoyed, so I thought I would pick this up for a skim-through. In the end the book caught my interest so much I read it the whole way through.

This book is written as an introduction to language for young people, but anybody who is curious about language can read it. I loved Crystal's charming, unpretentious writing and after reading it, I walked away with a better appreciation for speech and language. I have encountered many things in this book before, but the way he wrote gave me a different perspective. For instance, I hadn't thought much about what an amazing thing it is for a baby to learn language, yet most are fluent within two years - and the first two years of life, no less!

As usual, I was most fascinated by the history of language, and Crystal does a good job hypothesizing how speech developed and what the first languages would have sounded like. He makes the interesting point that language is about more than communication. It actually shapes the way we think and allows us to tell stories from the past as well as predict the future. I was also interested in his take on spelling. Crystal is a big proponent of the philosophy that language is fluid, and that it is pointless to try to "preserve" language. In that respect, he is fascinated by the speech of the younger generations and the language of texting, which he sees not as a deterioration of spelling but as a new and important branch. In fact, he theorizes that texters can spell just as well as everyone else, and to create shorthand such as "C U L8R" requires an advanced understanding of language that can then be played with.

While some readers may balk at the idea of the evolution of language, Crystal is quick to point out that before the printing press, spellings were more or less arbitrary. Because of the written word, we have ended up spelling things as they were pronounced hundreds of years ago - for instance, we once said the "k" in "knife." As the rules of English were chosen randomly by various printers over the centuries, there is no need to cling so dogmatically to spelling and grammar. What is right for one person at one time need not apply to all English speakers for all time. If that were the case, we'd all be speaking Shakespeare's language - or the language of Chaucer, for that matter!

Random postscript - you may have noticed that the header on this blog has been changing a lot lately. It's because I have been playing around with it, trying to find something I can live with. I've finally decided to stick to something simple, in keeping with my philosophy that my blog shouldn't be weighted down with weird fonts, tons of graphics or general clutter. I hope that this works for everyone and that you continue to enjoy reading my reviews as much as I enjoy writing them!

ETA: I've updated the links for my favourite book websites with some new sites, including a few of my favourite e-book stores. Please check them out!

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