Book Review: "A Little Book of Language"

As linguist David Crystal points out in A Little Book of Language, Adam's first job was to name all the animals. So the first human was a wordsmith, and his descendants have been at it ever since. Crystal doesn't stop with Adam as his only example, of course. He goes on to point out that while we don't know exactly when humans first began to speak, we know they began writing things down tens of thousands of years ago. Language is our species' most distinctive characteristic. But since it's something we learn practically in the cradle, we take word-making more or less for granted. Crystal begs us not to do that.  

His book is ostensibly for young readers. But the concise, lucid, and humorous way he explains his subject makes reading him a pleasure for readers of any age who want a good introduction or just a refresher course in the basics of linguistics—speech, grammar, etymology, dialects, slang and the myriad other -ologies and -isms that fall under the broad rubric of language.  

A lot of what he has to say may sound familiar—grown ups don't need etymology or vocal chords defined, most likely—but hardly a page goes by without a fact or two capable of sending you into the next room to tell someone about it. Did you know that that at nine months, babies begin sounding like their parents—that is, French babies begin making French language sounds, Chinese babies start sounding Chinese, and so on? Or that in the Middle Ages, the word meat—or mete in the original spelling—meant not merely the flesh of animals but all food, a meaning that survives like a ghost hovering over a word such as sweetmeat, which has nothing to do with meat? Or that there are more than 6,000 languages in the world, and that one goes extinct every couple of weeks?  

Crystal demonstrates, in dozens of ways, that language is an ever-changing thing. Words and usages come and go. Buy a new dictionary every five years or so, he recommends, since "to have only an old one in the house is bit like having an ancient mobile phone." But while he decries the death of some languages and wishes that more of us were multilingual, he is staunchly optimistic where you might expect him to be a scold. He's all for texting, for example, since he believes that to know how to corrupt the alphabet, you first have to know how to spell. Good-humored and erudite, Crystal has produced an invaluable book.

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