For Those Who Never Tire of Words

“Language is different from every other subject you’ll ever study, because language is a part of everything you’ll ever study,” David Crystal writes in A Little Book of Language, now available in paperback.

Written to appeal to readers in their early teens and late 50s alike, Crystal’s book is a history of and tribute to language in the same vein as E.H. Gombrich’s Little History of the World and Nigel Warburton’s Little History of Philosophy. In a series of short chapters punctuated with easy-to-read charts and charming illustrations, Crystal guides the reader from baby talk—the very beginnings of language acquisition—to texting abbreviations such as “gr8” and works by Charles Dickens.

English alone has over one million words, giving Crystal plenty of material to work with. Still, he finds time to linger over the marvels of language: a Polish street called Obi-Wana-Kenobiego after the Jedi master; the joke-book characters Jim Nasium, Patty Cake, and Dinah Mite; and the rhyming biographies penned by Edward Clerihew Bentley in the 1890s regarding such illustrious men as Sir Humphry Davy, who “was not fond of gravy.”

Yet the author does more than dwell on language’s quirks; he is a champion for the preservation of languages, a proponent of proper use, and an advocate of evolution. It comes as no surprise that, in 1995, Crystal was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his services to the English language, which encompass both the old and the new. Though he has written extensively on Shakespeare, Crystal does not bewail Twitter and instant messaging as the demise of the correct spelling; rather, he embraces them as the natural result of a language’s constant adaptive processes and looks to them as a new and exciting area of inquiry.

Listen to Crystal speak about his Little Book on NPR’s Talk of the Nation and read an excerpt on Dying Languages on the NPR website.

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