How Language Works

Nicholas Ostler review’s the book by David Crystal, in the New Statesman:

David Crystal is the prophet par excellence of the English language. With this book he has set his sights high, aiming not to write a history of a language (as he did in The Stories of English), nor a synopsis of worldwide languages (as in his monumental Cambridge Encyclo-paedia of Language), but to show, in a single volume, how language works.

The task is not a small one. Asking how something works implies that it can be revealingly viewed as a mechanism – which is why it makes sense to ask how a clock works but not, say, a rose or a grasshopper. With language, there is simply too much going on for there to be a single answer. So Crystal is forced to jump from one thing to another, with the result that the thing never quite forms into a workable whole. Still, he is in good company in this respect: Noam Chomsky has aimed all his life to characterise the properties of language – the “abstract organ” that develops in us all – but in practice has mostly confined himself to the mechanism of sentence structure.

Crystal casts an engaging eye over the linguistic horizon, giving us the fruits of others’ studies while building up an overarching framework into which most language questions fit. He wants to provide the interested non-expert with an outline of every major aspect of language as linguists understand it – rather as he might, say, in the course of a railway journey from London to Edinburgh.

More here.