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on 6 June 2011
In crafting A Portrait Of The Artist, James Joyce made the language of the narrative match the age of his protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, as he grew up. When I first started reading David Crystal's A Little Book Of Language I initially thought maybe he was trying to do the same. Later I realised that throughout he was going to treat his readers as some adults think ten-year-olds need to be addressed. It was actually written, apparently, for teenagers, and I don't know how these things work now but I certainly knew as a teenager when I was being patronised.
Unfortunately, this too often manifests as an academic straining every muscle to show he's "down with the kids", so we have references to (passé) stars like Eminem, a discussion of how to pronounce "dude", and the assertion that rappers need to know how to spell in order to misspell (example, Outkast), overlooking completely the role of the PR department. I would personally contend that "dude" does not have a pure [oo] sound in it, and I'm certain that the "ie" in "field" is not, as Crystal states, an [ee] sound, it's a diphthong (no mention).
In discussing the teaching of English as a foreign language, he asserts that the majority is carried out in Received Pronunciation, or RP. Well, I'd love to know where that little faux statistic comes from. When I studied to teach English as a foreign language, aside from my midlands/mockney hybrid, there was a Portuguese, an Italian and a Singaporean. Many Latin Americans speak English with a North American accent, and I doubt there are enough RP-speakers to cope with the 200 million Chinese who are reputedly learning English.
Another oddity is the statement that languages are mostly going extinct "in countries on either side of the equator". Aren't they all on one side of the equator or the other? And there's a little bit too much bleating about these languages, as if (his comparison) they're the equivalent of flora or fauna. Languages go extinct for a number of reasons, but apart from all speakers dying in isolation and in a sudden catastrophic event, the two main ones are suppression, as in the case of Basque or Catalan under Franco (and he, like the apartheid regime in South Africa, failed), or because they have ceased to be the most useful for a particular set of people. The former of these two naturally we should resist, as we resist rampant deforestation or the wholesale destruction of pandas, gorillas and rhinoceroses. The second, whilst sad, is a kind of linguistic Darwinism going on, and whilst it's nice to preserve languages Crystal fails to make a case for imposing on people a language whose day-to-day use has passed. Which isn't to say that if people want to preserve a language they shouldn't.
Things like these detract from, and undermine, the actual useful and interesting parts of the book, such as the explanation of the mechanics of language acquisition in childhood, the origins of spelling and the reason American English has a slightly different set of rules from British English, the origins of writing, language families, and etymology, especially the section on place names. He also addresses how language varies between circumstances (without, though, mentioning "register"), how language, and particularly English, has evolved over time, and particularly the influence on this process of technology, especially the internet.
But despite these goodies, it's difficult to recommend a book which at times does nothing but irritate.