‘How Language Works’ by David Crystal

I’ve just finished How Language Works by David Crystal, the linguist who wrote the excellent The Stories of English.

It’s a slightly odd book to be marketed as popular non-fiction, in that it doesn’t have any central hook. Rather it’s a broad survey of all aspects of language; it reads rather like an introductory text for an undergraduate course in linguistics. Perhaps that what he had in mind before his publisher decided to try and cash in on the success of Stories. Anyway, it consists of 73 chapters, all phrased as answers to a ‘How?’ question. He compares it to a car manual, with each chapter designed to be pretty much self-contained. i.e., picking some fairly random examples:

How we make speech sounds
How we peceive speech
How we learn to read and write
How we analyse meaning
How conversation works
How we know where someone is from
How the Indo-European family is organised
How we cope with many languages: translate them

Obviously, any of those is a subject that could fill a whole book, so even at 500 pages, the book can only skim over them.

If you’ve read your Steven Pinker most of this stuff will be broadly familiar, but he still held my attention all the way through. It’s clear, interesting, well-written, quietly entertaining, and Crystal obviously knows his stuff. I hope the lack of a clear USP doesn’t restrict sales too much.

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