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

Overview

Steven Pinker meets Bill Bryson in this landmark exploration of language.

In the author's own words, "How Language Works is not about music, cookery, or sex. But it is about how we talk about music, cookery, and sex-or, indeed, anything at all." Language is so fundamental to everyday life that we take it for granted. But as David Crystal makes clear in this work of unprecedented scope, language is an extremely powerful tool that defines the ...

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

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Overview

Steven Pinker meets Bill Bryson in this landmark exploration of language.

In the author's own words, "How Language Works is not about music, cookery, or sex. But it is about how we talk about music, cookery, and sex-or, indeed, anything at all." Language is so fundamental to everyday life that we take it for granted. But as David Crystal makes clear in this work of unprecedented scope, language is an extremely powerful tool that defines the human species.

Crystal offers general readers a personal tour of the intricate workings of language. He moves effortlessly from big subjects like the origins of languages, how children learn to speak, and how conversation works to subtle but revealing points such as how email differs from both speech and writing in important ways, how language reveals a person's social status, and how we decide whether a word is rude or polite.

Broad and deep, but with a light and witty touch, How Language Works is the ultimate layman's guide to how we communicate with one another.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Language is, as one commentator noted, the most valuable single possession of the human species, but few of us devote much time contemplating its intricacies. David Crystal's How Language Works arrives as a pleasant tutorial on language and communication in their varied aspects. In jargon-free language, the author of The Stories of English discusses a myriad of subjects: from baby speech and tone of voice to grammar, the written word, and neurological aspects of language. A model of clarity.
Paul Dickson
This is not a book meant to be read as a narrative. The author himself advises that this book should not necessarily be read "from left to right." He compares it to a car manual in which the section on tires can be read independently from the one on lights. The book takes us through the intricacies of spoken, written and signed language. He covers topics like lexicography, grammar, comparative linguistics, with meaty sections on dialects, dyslexia, discourse, multilingualism and more.

He succeeds again and again with clarity, wit and enthusiasm. Mr. Crystal, who is British, is that rare academic linguist who can discuss language authoritatively without resorting to the polysyllabic jargon that often serves as a wall around that realm of scholarship.
—The New York Times

Publishers Weekly
A world authority on language, Crystal (The Stories of English) offers an impeccably organized guide to language and communication that brings clarity to a scholarly subject, and is sure to become a standard reference. Written in an unadorned style, Crystal's chapters are purposeful lessons ("How we use tone of voice"; "How children learn to mean"; "How we choose what to say") that demonstrate his pedagogical genius for rendering complex matters simple. Crystal's tome imparts a vast amount of knowledge concerning intricate and interrelated aspects of speech, the written word, lexicography, grammar and neurological aspects of communication; it encompasses issues of identity, ethnicity and the preservation of disappearing languages, the structural organization of the world's different language families, multilingualism, and the pragmatic uses of artificial and natural languages. A feat of academic distillation, Crystal's book abounds in wisdom and dry wit. (Nov.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 73 short chapters, prolific linguist Crystal (The Shakespeare Miscellany) distills his knowledge and passion into a "personal account" to introduce a wide variety of topics relating to language. The text sometimes resembles lecture transcripts, as Crystal addresses general readers without fully engaging the range of scholarship, builds no unifying thesis, and forgoes footnotes and endnotes. Nevertheless, he deals with an impressive breadth of material, which he divides into ten sections. Nineteen diagrams are incorporated, including anatomical charts. Crystal wants each chapter to be a "self-contained unit," and in following with this, each begins with a "how" statement, e.g., "how we perceive speech" or "how languages change." The fine breakdown for each chapter both helps readers seeking specific topics and encourages browsing. However, the addition of a glossary for technical linguistic terms would have helped significantly, and the lack of scholarly documentation is not exemplary for students. As Crystal's "personal account," this introductory work is unique yet offers a breadth of material. Recommended for large public libraries. [See Crystal's Words Words Words, reviewed at right.-Ed.]-Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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 tothe many hitherto-unthought-of aspects of language. Packed with information, memorable anecdotes and surprising statistics, all presented with assurance and enthusiasm.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585678488
  • Publisher: Overlook Press, The
  • Publication date: 11/16/2006
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.49 (d)

Meet the Author

David Crystal is honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, and the editor of The Penguin Encyclopedia.

 

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