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

3.77  ·  Rating Details ·  724 Ratings  ·  70 Reviews
In this fascinating survey of everything from how sounds become speech to how names work, David Crystal answers every question you might ever have had about the nuts and bolts of language in his usual highly illuminating way. Along the way, we find out about eyebrow flashes, whistling languages, how parents teach their children to speak, how politeness travels across langu ...more
Hardcover, 512 pages
Published November 16th 2006 by The Overlook Press (first published 2006)
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Nov 05, 2009 Laurel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There's so much information in this book that it's difficult to absorb it all, let alone recall it a few days after the fact. To a language enthusiast like me, it was fascinating; I could see how many or perhaps most readers might get bored. Some chapters are much more interesting than others: I'm not that jazzed about the explanation of how we physically produce a uvular fricative, but I love the discussions of how humans learn language and about common features that all languages share. Crysta ...more
Katya Epstein
Personally I found this book frustrating: It covers too much material in too few pages (and my edition is almost 500 pages of very small print). The coverage of each topic was too superficial to be engrossing. I already knew a lot of the material and was disappointed not to learn more: He would mention something that would pique my interest, but then move right on to something else. For the material I didn't already know, the discussion was too cursory to really stick: no examples, analysis, or ...more
Nov 21, 2010 Matilda rated it really liked it
Shelves: languages, nonfiction
A clear and concise listing of all the issues that are related to language, from the physiological (how we produce sounds, how we hear sounds) to how we use language. The latter is, of course, a large subject, including such items as how babies learn language from their parents, how we mean something different than what we actually say ("It's cold in here!" can be interpreted as "Close the window, please!"), and my favorite subject, the status of dialects and how its in constant influx.

This book
Chris Little
Aug 19, 2011 Chris Little rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An enjoyable overview of linguistics. Crystal's 73 chapters can be read consecutively, or - he claims - dipped into at random. Each chapter is a short introduction to one topic. For example, 'How vocabulary grows' or 'How to study dialects'. Since each is only five pages or so, you know not to expect too much - it's an orientation to the topic.
Towards the end of the book (unless you randomly start there, of course), Crystal shows his great desire in writing: to encourage more interest in and con
Daniel Taylor
While this book isn't specifically geared toward helping writers become better, it's a comprehensive look at how language develops and is learned and used.

In 73 chapters it covers introducing language, spoken language, written language, sign language, language structure, discourse, dialects, languages, multilingualism, and looking after language.

Despite its length, the book is a fast read and unexpectedly enjoyable. Think of it as a introduction to language as a whole, as it doesn't go into grea
Aug 03, 2015 Rossdavidh rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: multicolor
Subtitle: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die. It took me a bit to figure out what about this book on linguistics seemed odd to me: there's no Big Idea. Which is kind of cool, really.

By "Big Idea", I mean the grand overarching theory that the author is in the throes of. Like Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar, or Stephen Pinker's rejection of the Blank Slate. It doesn't mean Crystal has nothing to say. However, what you will not find here is a Grand Thesis, which tie
Jan 10, 2010 Jaylia3 rated it liked it
This is an interesting and easy to read book. The chapters do not need to be read consecutively, each is a self-contained essay on some aspect of language.

I had hardly started the book, when it started me on an observational quest for an "Eyebrow Flash". I got one that same night from the ticket seller when I went to see a movie. Here is what the book says on page 7:

"Some visual effects are widely used in the cultures of the world. An example is the EYEBROW FLASH, used unconsciously when people
Sep 10, 2012 Russell rated it liked it
I would almost think about rating this book 4 stars (and then buying a copy), but there were several chapters that were extra informative (the type that makes me sleepy) and slightly fluffy. However, I very much enjoyed what I did learn regarding basic linguistic concepts, the many facets of cultural communication, what we know about how the brain works in constructing language flow (verbal, written, physical, etc) and the plethora of other connect-the-dots type of information (73 chapters worth ...more
Jul 25, 2013 Louise rated it it was amazing
Shelves: language-studies
This book is arranged in chapters that can stand alone or be read as a volume. Chapters are divided into sub chapters which similarly stand alone or can be read as a cohesive work of prose.

While the author is British, the emphasis is universal. The British influence shows the most in the discussion of dialects.

The articles vary from being anecdotal to factually meaty. The chapters on vocabulary show how vocabulary is learned with great anecdotes and factual backup. Like Crystal, I think that thi
Apr 12, 2013 Noah rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, linguistics
A good introduction to languages and everything about them. I found the chapters on language families particularly interesting. As it is only a introduction, it does not go deeply into the specifics.
May 12, 2016 Stacy rated it really liked it
Very interesting
Angus Stirling
Mar 16, 2014 Angus Stirling rated it really liked it
''Aren't you lovely!' said a man outside the window of a car showroom, unaware that a linguist was passing him at the time.'

73 pithy chapters giving an introduction to the many facets of language.
Hayley Beedle
Nov 12, 2016 Hayley Beedle rated it it was amazing
I usually need to prepare myself mentally for reading non-fiction: think stretches, deep breathing, and...go. I find I can only read a few pages at a time before longing for something more readable. Yet this book was so fascinating and well written that I found myself sitting and reading for hours at a time.

Language is a concept that, despite being used constantly, is not often given the thought and time it really deserves. As a language teacher my interest in the subject probably goes beyond t
Jul 15, 2008 Jonathan rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I was hopeful that this book would be as interesting as Wolf's "Proust and the Squid" in its discussion of how language allows humans to communicate. Indeed, the table of contents looked impressive. However, it was more like a semi-comprehensive reference book, with a few pages on each topic. Probably good as a jumping-off point if you are interested in some aspect of language, and probably better appreciated by linguists who already know the jargon. Written in a very dry, sterile manner and wit ...more
Laura Pamplona
Feb 21, 2013 Laura Pamplona rated it it was amazing
This books is everything you need about language! Is so easy to read because you don't have to follow a specific order. If you want to know about semantics, skip to the middle; if you want to know about phonetics, take it from the beginning; if you want to learn about multilingualism, be my guest and skip everything till the very end!

I wished I had read this book before I started majoring in linguistics, or even before I decided on what I wanted to major on. If you love languages but you are not
Jul 14, 2015 Leasha rated it liked it
Shelves: learning-stuff
Imagine an intro to linguistics book without the practice problems. Yup.
This is the book in which Crystal says as little as possible - while still offering a coherent overview - about as many topics as possible.

If I didn't already know most of what he'd said, I might have found this a helpful introduction. I can imagine that, for a first-time reader of linguistic topics, this book could be enlightening about which topics actually interested that reader.

But that's not at all what I was hoping fo
Lydia Atkins
May 23, 2013 Lydia Atkins rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm going to be starting A2 English Language in September and I found this book excellent preparation. It's been helping my mind busy with linguistic terminology during the holidays so that when I get back I'll be ready to go!
I would say though that you do need quite a strong base of knowledge to understand it fully as it does get quite complex and the book is quite dense and tough going. But that said, it's very informative and covers nearly every base you can think of. Stick with it until the
Nov 26, 2009 Kevan rated it it was ok
I am afraid that I was disappointed with this book. I love the topic of language and I do not think that I have ever failed to read one to completion.
There's a first time for everything.
This book is a very shallow survey of so many aspects of language that is repeatedly degenerates into an exercise in listing disciplines.
Eventually I simply couldn't continue to read an endless, unmemorable survey of the field of linguistics.
Though the writing style itself is good, the content is very generalized and introductory. This might make a reasonable introductory text for a linguistics course, but did not really hold my interest. Even the section on language families, which was of greatest interest to me, lacked the basics of an actual diagram showing the inter-relationships of the language families. Instead, Crystal includes multiple chapters of prose, one family following the other. Disappointing.
Jan 07, 2008 Matthew rated it liked it
A very comprehensive look at how language works. Since I took a couple of linguistic classes and spent a lot of time on foreign languages in college, not much of this was new to me, so I skimmed through a great deal of this book. There were maybe about a dozen chapters that I read from start to finish. However, for the amateur linguist, or anyone thinking this might be a career direction they'd like to explore, this is the book for you.
Nathan Glenn
Dec 13, 2010 Nathan Glenn rated it it was amazing
An excellent introduction/supplement on linguistics. It includes the scientific, artistic and political sides of linguistics. It would make a great textbook, keeping in mind that there are no excercises.
I also really enjoyed that he explained fully the stance of the modern linguist towards language change and variation, and prescriptive grammar.
I highly recommend this to anyone interested in learning about linguistics/language.
Jan 13, 2017 CF rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Detailing not only the history of language but also the importance, How Language Works is a great start to any budding linguists collection.

This book covers everything to do with the development and depth of language. Not only as a whole but also individually, covering dialects, pidgins and creoles.

I enjoyed this and learned a lot. Definitely worth a read if you're learning a language or simply interested in language generally.
Jun 18, 2012 Holmes rated it really liked it
This book is an excellent overview and summary of everything about language. I've already read many books by David Crystal, but he never ceases to impress me with his knowledge and passion for language. One can certainly treat this book as THE book to read as an introduction to language studies. I would even say this: if you're thinking about studying linguistics but are not sure if you'll like it, then read this book first. It will definitely help you make up your mind.
Lesley O'Mara
Accessibly written, this book has been the perfect introduction to linguistics for me. Each chapter provides a decent overview of the different area of linguistics and language which could be studied further elsewhere. Although I read this book cover to cover, it's written in such a way that you could dip in and out of relevant chapters as you need them - I'm confident I'll be coming back to this book again and again for reference during my studies and beyond.
Informative, but pretty basic and slightly boring.

He tries to raise people's awareness of the eminent extinction of some languages and suggests that we take care of them BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE. Not sure if I agree. Languages are constantly changing, splitting, and disappearing. The death of a language is not tragic. It's natural.

Anyways, this is a good book for the linguistically curious and uninformed.
Sep 20, 2011 Skyblueteapot rated it really liked it
It's HUGE, the first book I have ever managed to read cover-to-cover on introductory linguistics, which says a lot for its readability. Written in laymen's terms, it still manages to say a lot that was new to me.

It missed out on 5 stars because I felt it was a bit of a mixture: too long to be a layman's book, too superficial to be a first year university textbook.
At times interesting and educational other times snore worthy. Was expecting it to be a bit more like the last book of David Crystal's that I read (Spell it out) which was much more layperson friendly and ( to me at least) consistently interesting. Still worth reading but most people (myself included) will need to break it up a bit to get through.
Vilém Zouhar
Something between a popular science book and a textbook. It's packed with information, but it's so badly balanced, that it's frustrating to finish 5 chapters in a row. There were some chapter which I've liked, but they were preceeded by a pile of chapters which I had to endure almost against my will. Read only if you are a linguist.
Nov 29, 2012 Maggie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
i deeply appreciate this book -- the breadth and the depth of the particulars of language and how it works for humans is well presented. and contrasts far more handsomely to steven pinker's the language instinct simply because crystal doesn't have an evolutionary-pushing agenda but rather presents the details as they are currently known and understood w/o reaching beyond the our grasp of what is.
Bob Hartley
May 15, 2013 Bob Hartley rated it really liked it
I'm really fucking interested in language, even though I only bought this to photocopy for a project in uni (I studied illustration). Reading it in my own time is a bonus. It's good because it's cross-referenced. It's not exactly advanced but there's an analogy for that that Crystal might have come up with. He's one of my heroes. I'd have him round for tea.
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David Crystal works from his home in Holyhead, North Wales, as a writer, editor, lecturer, and broadcaster. Born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland in 1941, he spent his early years in Holyhead. His family moved to Liverpool in 1951, and he received his secondary schooling at St Mary's College. He read English at University College London (1959-62), specialised in English language studies, did some rese ...more
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“Language death is like no other form of disappearance. When people die, they leave signs of their presence in the world, in the form of their dwelling places, burial mounds, and artefacts - in a word, their archaeology. But spoken language leaves no archaeology. When a language dies, which has never been recorded, it is as if it has never been.” 0 likes
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