Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series is often touted as a trilogy in five parts. Linguist David Crystal has also written a supernumerary trilogy. In the first book of the trilogy, "English as a Global Language" (1997), Crystal discusses the rise of English as a universal language and implications for the future. The second book, "Language Death" (2000), stands in antithesis to the first, and considers the implications involved when speech communities give up their heritage languages in preference for languages of wider venue. In the third book of the trilogy, "Language and the Internet" (2001), Crystal considers how computer-assisted communication (email, instant messaging, and so on) is changing the way language is used. Now Crystal has written a fourth book, which summarizes the themes of the first three books and ties them together.
English is rapidly becoming a world language. Approximately a quarter of the world's population can communicate in English, and among those only about a quarter are native speakers of the language. This means that English no longer "belongs" to the English speaking countries, but rather to the world at large. No doubt the language will be greatly influenced by the cultures of these new English speakers. However, as Crystal points out, English has always been a "vacuum cleaner of a language" (p. 27), absorbing new vocabulary and even syntax from the other languages it has come into contact with. Thus, while English will continue to expand in its role as the global language, it will also change drastically.
Crystal also considers the possibility that English will splinter into mutually unintelligible languages as Vulgar Latin split into the Romance languages a millennium and a half ago. In addition to the traditional division into British and American dialects of English, the last decades of the twentieth century has also seen the rise of non-native dialects of English, such as Singapore English, Japanese English, and so on. Crystal believes that dialects arise because speech communities use linguistic distinctiveness as badges of group identity. However, it is more likely that the direction of causality is in reverse; that is, dialects arise because of relative isolation, and these dialects become distinguishing features of the people who use them.
Languages, like species, arise, flourish, decay and become extinct, and this is a process that has been going on since the beginning. However, it is predicted that about half of the world's six thousand languages will become extinct during the twenty-first century, due mainly to the fact that the world is becoming more unified. To participate in the new global marketplace, people need to speak English, and they may see little benefit in passing their heritage language on to their children. Crystal views language death as on par with species extinction, describing the loss of linguistic diversity as "cataclysmic" (p. 47), "language extinction on a massive and unprecedented scale" (p. 50), and a "crisis in linguistic ecology" (p. 117).
However, Crystal's alarmist attitude is unwarranted. Neither genocide nor oppressive language policies is behind the current trend toward language extinction. Rather, it is a grass-roots movement toward global linguistic unification. Indeed, his call for active government in revitalizing endangered languages will likely be perceived by many as a coercive policy to exclude minorities from engagement in the larger society. Generally, languages do not die because their speakers die; rather, they die because their speakers no longer teach them to their children. Thus, attempts at endangered-language revitalization amount to nothing more than vain attempts to stem the inexorable forces of change.
Crystal moves on to discuss how computers have impacted language use. Computer-assisted communication has brought on the third revolution in the history of language. The first revolution was the invention of spoken language at least fifty thousand years ago; this new ability to communicate (even to think) led to an explosion of cultural and technological advances. The second revolution was the invention of writing about five thousand years ago. The ability to record language allowed humans to accumulate knowledge and transmit it across both space and time, and this has led to an even greater cultural and technological progress. The third revolution is computer-assisted communication, which is molding a new mode of language that is neither speech nor writing but rather something altogether new. The ability to access and transmit information immediately anywhere in the world is already having a significant impact on society.
These three topics are tied together with the observation that language change is inevitable. Although purists lament the deterioration of the language, Crystal notes than language change is always innovative and expansive, not deleterious. When languages borrow or invent new words, they do not replace the traditional lexicon. Rather, they find a place alongside the existing vocabulary, enabling speakers to express new meanings and nuances. Crystal is to be applauded for his progressive outlook toward language change. However, one wishes that he would understand language extinction as part of this same unavoidable process of language change.
Finally, Crystal's comments on bilingualism are enlightening. He points out that over half of the world's population is at least bilingual. Furthermore, he notes that there seems to be no limit to the number of languages that children can learn if they are exposed to them early enough. Indeed, Crystal sees a future where bilingualism is the norm; that is, people would speak their heritage language at home and locally, while communicating in some form of world English internationally.
Those who have already read the first three books in the trilogy will find nothing new in the fourth book. On the other hand, the "The Language Revolution" provides a nice summary of Crystal's major concern, namely the status of language in the twenty-first century. He neatly summarizes the issues concerning the rise of global English, the disappearance of indigenous languages and the effect of new technology on how language is used. This little book gives plenty to think about for anyone concerned with these issues.