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A Little Book of Language

A Little Book of Language

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    A Little Book of Language
    Book Description:

    With a language disappearing every two weeks and neologisms springing up almost daily, an understanding of the origins and currency of language has never seemed more relevant. In this charming volume, a narrative history written explicitly for a young audience, expert linguist David Crystal proves why the story of language deserves retelling.

    From the first words of an infant to the peculiar modern dialect of text messaging,A Little Book of Languageranges widely, revealing language's myriad intricacies and quirks. In animated fashion, Crystal sheds light on the development of unique linguistic styles, the origins of obscure accents, and the search for the first written word. He discusses the plight of endangered languages, as well as successful cases of linguistic revitalization. Much more than a history, Crystal's work looks forward to the future of language, exploring the effect of technology on our day-to-day reading, writing, and speech. Through enlightening tables, diagrams, and quizzes, as well as Crystal's avuncular and entertaining style,A Little Book of Languagewill reveal the story of language to be a captivating tale for all ages.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15875-5
    Subjects: Linguistics, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. CHAPTER 1 Baby-talk
    (pp. 1-5)

    We sometimes do some silly things with language. One of the silliest happens when we find ourselves in front of a new baby. What do we do?

    We talk to it.

    We probably say ‘Hello’ or ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Aren’t you lovely!’ or something like that.

    Why do we do that? The baby certainly hasn’t learned any language yet. It can’t possibly understand a word of what we’re saying. And yet we talk to it as if it does.

    The baby’s mother is usually the first to strike up a conversation with it. Here’s an actual example, which was...

  4. CHAPTER 2 From cries to words
    (pp. 6-13)

    It’s really interesting to listen to babies during their first year of life, and try to work out what they’re saying. We can learn a lot about language that way.

    And the first thing we notice, if we listen to them very early on – at around one month of age, say – is that the noises they make don’t sound anything like language at all. They aren’t speaking. They’re just vocalizing – using their voice to communicate some pretty basic needs.

    We’d call it simply ‘crying’, a lot of the time. But the cries aren’t all the same. If...

  5. CHAPTER 3 Learning how to understand
    (pp. 14-20)

    Let’s think about what happens when we learn a word. If I say that in Japanese there’s a wordbara-bara, and ask you to learn it, what’s the first question you’ll ask me?

    ‘What does it mean?’

    That’s a very sensible question, because there isn’t much point in trying to learn a word if you don’t know what it means. (Actually it means ‘very heavy rain’, and it’s an extremely useful word to know if you’re thinking of walking around Tokyo without an umbrella!)

    But what if you’re a baby, and you can’t ask ‘What does it mean?’ because you...

  6. CHAPTER 4 Making vibrations
    (pp. 21-27)

    My son Steven understood ‘all gone’ when he was about six months old. But he didn’t try to say it until he was one year old. Even then he didn’t say it properly. Why was there such a delay? And why couldn’t he say it right first time?

    If you’ve started to learn a foreign language, you’ll know the answer. Some of the sounds of a new language are different, and it takes a while to work out how to pronounce them. Where do we put our tongue? How do we shape our lips? Some people are brilliant, and have...

  7. CHAPTER 5 Pronouncing sounds
    (pp. 28-33)

    What happens to the air, after it passes through our vocal folds and moves on up our throat? Eventually, it leaves our bodies, going out either through our mouth or through our nose. When we’re just breathing normally, it goes out through our nose. When we speak, most of it goes out through our mouth. And that’s where things start to happen.

    When the air flows through the mouth, it’s a bit like wind going through a tunnel. The difference is that we can change the shape of the tunnel by moving our tongue and our lips, and also our...

  8. CHAPTER 6 Discovering grammar
    (pp. 34-39)

    It must be quite a magical moment when a child realizes that, if sounds are strung together in a certain way, things start to happen. Say ‘dada’, and the man talks to you. Say ‘mama’, and the woman does. Say ‘bye-bye’, and people wave at you. Say ‘all gone’, and someone takes your dish away or gives you some more to eat. Say ‘night-night’, and people give you kisses.

    Once children have worked out that words are interesting and useful, the floodgates open. By 18 months, most have learned to say about 50 words. What are they talking about, these...

  9. CHAPTER 7 Having a conversation
    (pp. 40-44)

    Why do we need sounds, and words, and sentences? By the time children reach five, they’ve been alive for over 40,000 hours, and spent a fair bit of that time learning how to speak. They’ve mastered all the sounds in their language, hundreds of ways of making sentences, and thousands of words. Millions of children have done the job two or three times over, because they’ve grown up speaking more than one language. Why? What is all that language for?

    We use language for all sorts of reasons, but the chief one undoubtedly is so that we can talk to...

  10. CHAPTER 8 Learning to read and write
    (pp. 45-51)

    I ended the last chapter by talking about James having to learn ‘to read between the lines’. He wasn’t reading, of course; he was listening. That expression is an interesting example of the way we sometimes use the written language to help us talk about what’s going on in speech. It’s difficult to see many of the sounds that we speak, as I pointed out in Chapter 5. But it’s easy to see the marks that we write. They are there, on page and screen.

    Children learn about reading very early on – if they’re fortunate enough to be growing...

  11. CHAPTER 9 Getting to grips with spelling
    (pp. 52-57)

    We can be good readers and still find spelling difficult. Why?

    The main reason is that, when we read, someone else has sorted out the spelling for us. They’ve already done all the hard work. That means we can skim over some of the words and not pay full attention to all the letters. It’s even possible to read sentences with some of the letters left out.

    I xpct yu cn read ths sntnce.

    Texters do this sort of thing, as we’ll see (in Chapter 30). But when we have to spell a word, we can’t take any shortcuts. Spellers...

  12. CHAPTER 10 Spelling rules and variations
    (pp. 58-64)

    I mentioned ‘yogurt’, in Chapter 9, because it has more than one spelling. Are there any other words like this? Quite a few, actually.

    If we read through the entries in a dictionary, we often find words which can be spelled in more than one way. Most of them are due to differences between British and American English. In the early 1800s, an American dictionary-writer called Noah Webster changed the spelling of certain words to make the English language look more American, and they caught on. So today, when British people read an American newspaper, they notice many differences –...

  13. CHAPTER 11 Grammar rules and variations
    (pp. 65-70)

    Grammar, you’ll remember from Chapter 6, is the way we build sentences out of words. When we learn to talk, we discover the rules which control the way this is done. In English, we hear lots of sentences like this:

    I bought a coat.

    Little Johnny broke a window.

    The postman delivered some letters.

    We can work out that each sentence has three parts. Someone (‘I’, ‘Little Johnny’, ‘The postman’) did something (‘bought’, ‘broke’, ‘delivered’), and something was affected by the result of that action – ‘a coat’ was bought, ‘a window’ was broken, ‘some letters’ were delivered. Everybody talks...

  14. CHAPTER 12 Accents and dialects
    (pp. 71-77)

    It’s one of the first things we notice. We meet someone speaking our language who comes from a different part of the country, or a different part of the world, and we realize that they don’t speak it in the same way that we do. They sound different. They use different words and different grammar. The differences may even be so great that we have difficulty understanding them. Why is this?

    The answer is all to do with accents and dialects. It’s important to understand the difference between these two terms, so I’ll take them one at a time.


  15. CHAPTER 13 Being bilingual
    (pp. 78-83)

    I know a man from Scotland who’s very proud of being Scottish. He wears a kilt, has a tartan hat, and has a badge which says proudly ‘I’m from Glasgow’. He obviously has a very strong sense of identity. But he has a problem. If he’s round a corner, I can’t see his kilt, hat, or badge. If I meet him in the dark I can’t see them either. And if he takes all his clothes off to go for a swim, then I’ve no chance of spotting them.

    Question: How can you show someone you’re Scottish if you haven’t...

  16. CHAPTER 14 The languages of the world
    (pp. 84-91)

    How many languages are there? Around 6,000. Maybe quite a few more. Maybe quite a few less. It’s difficult to be sure.

    One reason is that languages are rapidly dying out, in several parts of the world – perhaps as fast as one every few weeks. We’ll see in a later chapter why this is happening. But obviously, when languages are disappearing at such a rate, it makes it difficult to arrive at a definite total.

    Then there are still a few parts of the world where people are discoveringnewlanguages. It can happen like this. An expedition travels...

  17. CHAPTER 15 The origins of speech
    (pp. 92-97)

    When we go looking for language families, we find several parts of the world – such as Europe – where the evidence is clear-cut. The facts of history and of language reinforce each other, and we can say for certain that a family of languages exists. But this doesn’t mean that every language in Europe belongs to the Indo-European family.

    In northern Spain, and over the Pyrenees into south-west France, there’s a language called Basque. It’s totally unlike the other languages of Spain or indeed any of the other languages of Europe. It is anisolatedlanguage. It certainly doesn’t...

  18. CHAPTER 16 The origins of writing
    (pp. 98-103)

    Here are some road traffic signs.

    You’ll see Numbers 1–5 on roads in Europe; 6–7 in the USA. Number 1 means that there’s a roundabout ahead. Number 2 means pedestrians could be crossing the road. Number 3 means that the speed limit is 60. Number 4 means that here is a place to park. Number 5 means that a double bend is coming up. Number 6 tells us which main road we are on. And the meaning of number 7 should be obvious. We have to learn signs like these when we learn to drive.

    All seven signs...

  19. CHAPTER 17 Modern writing
    (pp. 104-111)

    How could I write my name down in the languages of the world? One way would be to use the technique outlined in Chapter 16, and create a sign which meant ‘David Crystal’. It might be ôô. But if everybody did that, it would soon be difficult to remember what such signs meant. We’d remember the signs for our relatives and friends, but imagine trying to find someone in a telephone directory, if everyone had their own personal sign!

    It didn’t take people long, in the history of writing, to realize that picture-writing, though simple to start with, has its...

  20. CHAPTER 18 Sign language
    (pp. 112-117)

    Speech and writing are two of the ways in which we encounter language. But there’s a third way.

    It’s a common sight these days. We’re watching a programme on TV, and in the corner of the screen is a box in which someone is gesturing, mouthing, and making lively facial expressions. What’s going on?

    The person is usingsign language, for the benefit of any deaf people who may be watching. The signer is a hearing person who has learned a deaf sign language.

    Which sign language signers use depends on which part of the world they’re in. If they’re...

  21. CHAPTER 19 Comparing languages
    (pp. 118-124)

    All the 6,000 or so languages of the world have certain things in common. They’ve all got sentences. They’ve all got nouns and verbs. They’ve all got vowels and consonants. They’ve all got rhythm and intonation. But when we start to learn a foreign language, it’s the differences which cause problems. It’s natural to think that everyone else speaks their language in the same way that we do. Then we discover the reality is very different.

    We’ll probably notice the unfamiliar sounds first, and maybe have some difficulty getting our mouth to make them properly. For instance, English doesn’t have...

  22. CHAPTER 20 Dying languages
    (pp. 125-130)

    Speaking, writing, and signing are the three ways in which a language lives and breathes. They are the three mediums through which a language is passed on from one generation to the next. If a language is a healthy language, this is happening all the time. Parents pass their language on to their children, who pass it on to their children ... and the language lives on.

    Languages like English, Spanish, and Chinese are healthy languages. They exist in spoken, written, and signed forms, and they’re used by hundreds of millions of people all over the world. But most of...

  23. CHAPTER 21 Language change
    (pp. 131-137)

    All living languages change. They have to. Languages have no existence apart from the people who use them. And because people are changing all the time, their language changes too, to keep up with them. The only languages that don’t change are dead ones. Even so, as we saw in Chapter 20, it’s possible to bring a language back from the grave and make it live – and change – again.

    Why does a language change? Sometimes the reason is obvious. If we invent something, we need a name for it, and at that point a new word comes into...

  24. CHAPTER 22 Language variation
    (pp. 138-144)

    We saw in Chapter 12 that a language isn’t the same wherever it’s spoken. It appears as different accents and dialects, telling us which country, or which part of a country, the speakers come from. This is an important way in which language varies. But it’s not the only way.

    In the opening chapters of this book we saw another kind of language variation – in terms of age. If we listened to a recording of the voices of people aged from 1 to 100, it would be possible to guess roughly how old they were. We wouldn’t get it...

  25. CHAPTER 23 Language at work
    (pp. 145-150)

    We see even more variation when we look at the way language is used in the workplace.

    Next time you’re in a school library, notice how the books are organized. There are sections such as BIOLOGY and HISTORY and GEOGRAPHY and RELIGION and LITERATURE and SCIENCE. It’s the same in a public library – except that there are more headings there. You’ll find LAW and MEDICINE, for instance, which aren’t usually taught in school.

    Pick a book from two of these sections – literature and science, for example – and open them somewhere in the middle. Choose a paragraph and...

  26. CHAPTER 24 Slang
    (pp. 151-156)

    What do you make of this conversation?

    Bill: I’m gonna take the Porker down to the bakery for some rolls.

    Ben: I’ll come with you, man. I need some juice for my Pug too.

    It sounds very odd. Somebody taking a pig to a shop to get it some bread? And buying fruit juice for a dog?

    But it’s only odd if we don’t realize that this is a special kind of ‘cool’ language used by some people who are mad keen on cars. To understand it, we need to translate the words like this:

    The world of cars is...

  27. CHAPTER 25 Dictionaries
    (pp. 157-162)

    Here’s a challenge. Answer these questions.

    1. When you’re at home, where do you keep your mobile phone?

    2. Do you understand how your mobile phone works?

    3. How often do you use your mobile phone?

    4. When did you last upgrade your mobile phone?

    I suspect you’re thinking: ‘Not much of a challenge’. So here’s another one.

    1. When you’re at home, where do you keep your dictionary?

    2. Do you understand how your dictionary works?

    3. How often do you use your dictionary?

    4. When did you last upgrade your dictionary?

    Most people find those questions much harder to answer. Here’s one set of responses:

    1. I’m...

  28. CHAPTER 26 Etymology
    (pp. 163-168)

    Etymology is the study of the history and origins of words, and it’s a subject that is full of surprises. Take the words ‘salary’ and ‘sausage’. These days they have completely different meanings.

    A salary is the amount of money someone is paid in a year for doing a job.

    A sausage is a type of food made of meat shaped into a thin roll.

    But once upon a time they were the same word. How can that be?

    ‘Salary’ came into English in the fourteenth century. It comes from the Latin word ‘salarium’, which meant ‘salt-money’. Roman soldiers were...

  29. CHAPTER 27 Place names
    (pp. 169-175)

    We need to give names to places so that we can tell people where we live and find our way around. Imagine what it would be like without any place names. We’d have to say something like this:

    Come and see me tomorrow. I live in a small town five miles from where you live. You get to it by travelling north along the main road, passing three settlements, until you get to a hill, then at the top of a hill you’ll see another settlement by some trees. Take the first turning on the left, and you’ll see a...

  30. CHAPTER 28 Personal names
    (pp. 176-182)

    If there’s one thing guaranteed to upset people, it’s to spell their name wrong. And they go out of their way to make sure we don’t. They say such things as:

    It’s Anne with an ‘e’.

    That’s Taylor with a ‘y’ not an ‘i’.

    It’s Katherine with a ‘k’ and an ‘e’.

    Hilary has one ‘l’ (not two, as in Hillary Clinton).

    Our names are very special. Parents often spend a lot of time thinking what name to give their baby. And, once we’ve got our name, it takes a very important event indeed to make us change it.


  31. CHAPTER 29 The electronic revolution
    (pp. 183-188)

    The computer has changed the nature of our language lives. For the first few years of our life, all we could do was listen and speak. At about age five, we learned to read and write. Just a few people, when they were much older, learned to type, using a typewriter. And that was it. Then along came computers and mobile phones, and now millions and millions are using keyboards and keypads to communicate with each other electronically. Even very young children. I know several three-year-olds who can find the letters of their name on a keyboard and send them...

  32. CHAPTER 30 Texting
    (pp. 189-194)

    ‘It’s a crazy new language. I can’t understand a word of it!’ That’s what I once heard someone say about text-messaging. And the speaker went on: ‘If it carries on like this, the young people of today will end up not knowing how to spell!’

    Well, you readers are the kind of young people this person was thinking of. Is it true? You probably all text. Is ‘textese’ really a new language? And do you really not know how to spell?

    As soon as we start to study texts carefully, as a good linguist should, it turns out that they...

  33. CHAPTER 31 Language at play
    (pp. 195-200)

    Texting shows how quickly people are ready to play with language. Very soon after the mobile phone was invented, they started to send texts to each other which played with the normal spellings of words. Not long after that, as we saw in Chapter 30, they started texting poetry. And not just poetry. In some parts of the world, such as China and Japan, millions of people receive daily instalments of the latest text-message novels!

    We love to play with language, and we enjoy it when other people play with language. And we’re playful in hundreds of different ways. Every...

  34. CHAPTER 32 Why use language?
    (pp. 201-208)

    What’s it all for? Why did the human race learn to speak, write, and sign? What’s the use of language? We might think the answer is very simple: to communicate with each other. That’s how I talked about it earlier in the book. But there’s more to it than that.

    Certainly the primary purpose of language is for communication. We use language to communicate our ideas and opinions to each other. We use it to ask other people for information and to tell them our thoughts when they ask us. Sometimes we tell the truth. Sometimes we tell lies. But...

  35. CHAPTER 33 Language for feelings
    (pp. 209-214)

    Language often allows us several ways of saying the same thing, but there’s a very slight difference between them. Here are Mary, Susan, and Joan talking about some children playing in the next room.

    Mary: Listen to those little ones!

    Susan: Listen to those urchins!

    Joan: Listen to those brats!

    The words tell us something about the feelings of the speakers. Mary must think the kids are really sweet. Susan must think they’re being a bit of a mischief, and probably they’re not very well dressed. And Joan must think they’re being a real pain. If they didn’t want to...

  36. CHAPTER 34 Political correctness
    (pp. 215-220)

    In recent years, the way we describe people has changed a lot. Not so long ago, many jobs had two names, depending on whether they were done by a man or a woman.

    These days, most of the ‘-ess’ names have disappeared, as a result of a huge social movement to make men and women equal in the workplace. We’ll still often hear ‘actress’, ‘waitress’, and a few others, but it’s a long time since I’ve heard female poets and sculptors called ‘poetesses’ and ‘sculptresses’. They’re just plain ‘poets’ and ‘sculptors’ now. In shops female managers today are simply ‘managers’...

  37. CHAPTER 35 Language in literature
    (pp. 221-226)

    Language, as we saw in Chapters 32 and 33, can make us think and make us feel. It can appeal to our head and also to our heart. And, within our heads, it can appeal to our ears and also to our eyes, by sounding or looking beautiful or ugly. Sometimes it does all four things at once. We can read something which tells us a good story, makes us laugh and cry, is nicely laid out on the page, and (when we read it aloud) is great to listen to. Language like this is most often found in novels...

  38. CHAPTER 36 Developing a style
    (pp. 227-232)

    All the authors in Chapter 35 have developed a style of their own. A style is somebody’s personal way of using language. It’s the same sort of idea as when we’re impressed by someone, and we say ‘I like your style!’ We mean: ‘I like the way you do your own thing.’ People like to do their own thing with language too.

    I should have begun this chapter by saying: all the authors have developedstylesof their own. Style isn’t like our fingerprints. We have different styles, which we develop to suit the different circumstances in which we find...

  39. CHAPTER 37 The complexity of language
    (pp. 233-238)

    Language is the most complex thing human beings ever learn, I said at the end of Chapter 35. Let’s reflect for a moment on why that is so.

    Look at what you’re reading now. Your brain is processing, at great speed, up to 26 letters of the alphabet, some large, some small, and a dozen or so punctuation marks. These letters have been combined into words, and there are (as we saw at the end of Chapter 3) thousands of words to choose from in a language. Many of these words allow different beginnings and endings (such as ‘happy’, ‘unhappy’...

  40. CHAPTER 38 Linguistics
    (pp. 239-243)

    Linguistics is the science of language. And the people who study language in this way are calledlinguists. I’m a linguist – and so are you, if you’ve read this far.

    The word ‘linguist’ has another meaning, of course. It can mean someone who is fluent in several foreign languages – like the amazing Harold Williams mentioned in Chapter 3 who could speak 58 of them. That’s a separate skill. I can study music without knowing how to play a lot of musical instruments well. It’s the same with linguistics. I can study language without needing to be fluent in...

  41. CHAPTER 39 Applied linguistics
    (pp. 244-249)

    Language is everywhere. Everybody uses it, and wants to use it well. But quite often people find they can’t use it well. And some people find they can’t use it at all.

    I once knew a little boy called Tom. He was aged four but he was talking like a two-year-old. He was saying such things as ‘kick ball’ and ‘want car’, and using lots of one-word sentences, such as those I described in Chapter 4. But he was four, so he should have been saying some really long sentences and telling stories with them. He wasn’t. Something had gone...

  42. CHAPTER 40 Your language world
    (pp. 250-254)

    I’ve done my bit. I’ve told you as much as I can about language, in this little book of 40 chapters. Now it’s over to you. People are always telling us that the future of the planet is in our own hands. That’s true. And it applies just as much to language as it does to plants, animals, and climate change.

    So what should you be concerned about, if you have a real interest in language? I have six big things I care about, and I hope you’ll care about them too, and maybe, one day, do something to help...

  43. Index
    (pp. 255-264)