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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars

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on 22 August 2017
A thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the topic of linguistics, I couldn't put it down. I particularly enjoyed where he spoke about children at 6 months being able to recognise their native language, and differentiate between it and other languages. Fascinating.
I'm excited to read more of David's books and continue learning!
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on 2 June 2017
Really jnterestjng book exploring language and language development in humans.
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on 14 August 2010
Aimed at teenagers, given I am sure David Crystal could make a phonebook seem riveting I still had to buy and add this book to my 'David Crystal' collection: and it does not disappoint.

Looking at a great number of topics in a very chatty and easy-to-read style, David Crystal covers every conceivable topic from baby talk, to how babies learn to talk, to conversation, writing, spelling, grammar, bilingualism, language change, and the changes due to the Internet and electronic communication; and plenty more topics I was surprised and delighted to see such as sign language, playing games with language, dictionaries, etymology, political correctness and language style, and much more. And all with the clarity and sensibility he always brings to language discussion [none of the "the language is inevitably going to the dogs" so favoured by some for him:], this book informs as well as entertains.

While focused on English, other languages get a look in and it was fascinating to learn of some of their rules and they way they use language.

I eagerly await his next book, as well as continuing my way through others he has written previously.
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Is it possible that there are multiple David Crystals? It seems unlikely that just one person can write as many books, give as many interviews, and complete as many projects as he does.

A longtime fan of Crystal, I have to admit I was a little perplexed by A Little Book of Language at first. The subject matter was interesting, as usual, but the style was different. He seemed chattier, and there were so many exclamation points! What was going on?

Since I'd started reading the book immediately upon receiving it, without looking at the descriptions or blurbs, I didn't realize it is aimed at younger readers. Once that little mystery was solved, I settled back in, and found that aside from what this adult perceives as a slightly patronizing tone (but may seem quite innocuous to the age group it is aimed at), the book is quite a good introduction to many language-related topics.

While A Little Book of Language is simple, it is by no means simple-minded. Reading past the occasional clanger ("Not everyone in [Australia] speaks like [Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee]. Many Aussies have educated accents too."), I found that there was plenty for older readers to learn as well. For instance, sign languages have "accents" and someone whose native language is American Sign Language might have a distinctive accent when speaking British Sign Language, by holding the thumb straight out rather than close to the forefinger in certain words, for example.

When I was a youngster I read books by Mario Pei, who wrote about language and linguistics for the general reader. I loved his books about word origins and language quirks. Of course, his books, written in the 1960s and 70s, would be seriously out of date now. The studies of language have come a long way in the past few decades. Come to think of it, I can't think of any books that might serve as a general all-purpose introduction to general readers of all ages in the same way that Mario Pei's did, until now. There are plenty of ranting polemics by grammar police. Or if you want more specialized and scholarly writing, there are excellent works by popular linguists such as John McWhorter, Derek Bickerton, and Steven Pinker. However, for non-academic and generally accessible works on the way language works, you can't beat David Crystal.
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on 9 February 2012
If you have young children, or are about to become a parent, this book will start you off thinking how most of us learn to speak by copying and making sense of sounds, and perhaps a lot earlier than we realise. Acquiring language civilizes, socializes, and "forms a part of everything you do" (the author). Having language and knowing how to use it is empowering.

We may all think we know about "language" because we listen to, speak, read and write it according to our individual circumstances and motivation. Most of us don't really know all that much about language unless we set about giving it some thought. David Crystal helps us to do exactly that. He guides the reader through many interesting aspects of language - facts, facets, ideas, theories and applications - in simple written language.

This is not a textbook but rather a very well-informed series of language "stories" with useful diagrams, insets and charts written with humour, personal insights and interests which the reader is invited to share. He gets reader attention by using a near story-telling style with "I", "you" and "we" as though we are listening to him as he asks and answers questions and then brings in further related points of interest. It is as if he, the speaker and writer, is having a dialogue with you, the listener and reader.

An interesting, entertaining and thought provoking read - and not too long!
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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.
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on 11 September 2011
Aimed squarely at pre-teen readers, much-respected linguist David Crystal takes us on a breezy overview of language. He follows an ambitious path, starting with baby talk and progressing through phonetics, grammar, written language, conversation, bilingualism, language change, computer-related language and on, and on to linguistics itself.

The broad scope is not without problems though, with 40 short chapters and 250 pages, the book is not exactly 'little' and it would take a dedicated and smart kid to complete it. Said smart kid might therefore become quickly irritated by the 'avuncular' (i.e. vaguely patronising) style in which no prior understanding - at all - is assumed. Terms line 'jargon', 'jam', 'first name' etc are explained in painstaking detail. The result is it is all a bit superficial and often simplistic. As an example, isn't it misleading, to say the least, to suggest linguists distinguish dialect from language by a hackneyed "when people speak different languages they don't understand each other" (p85). Even my own 10-year-old, who speaks the mostly mutually-intelligible languages Catalan, Spanish and Mallorquin would challange that. The underlying 'politics' of language/dialect definilition is actually much more interesting than this sort of determinism, and easily understandable even by pre-teens.

There is no excuse either for the annoying sloppiness that occasionally creeps in; the Celtic language of Scotland, for example, is not 'Gallic' (p126) and there is no such person nowadays as 'the Queen of England' (p132). Did the great David Crystal really make such schoolboy mistakes?
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on 17 January 2011
A Little Book of Language is written for the younger reader.
I found it to be very good at describing how to have a conversation for young people, and especially good for helping Aspergers Syndrome youth to develop an understanding of how to communicate with others in conversation. Crystal explains how children need to learn about why people say things indirectly, he describes 'reading between the lines' - how to work out what people really mean, and how not to sound rude.
The detailed descriptions of how children learn to speak in grammatical sentences is also excellent for these young people.
'As we grow up', he writes, 'we build a language wardrobe inside our heads.' He explains how we have formal language, or talking to family, or to friends, to babies, teachers, animals.
Because of mobile phones and the internet, speakiing and writing styles have doubled. We need to develop a sense of when each style is appropriate.
There is much in the book for adults too. Linguistics, the science of language, creative uses of language, other languages compared, changes in language, slang, the list is long. The book is well worth a read.
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on 25 August 2013
Excellent book, covering a huge range of topics within the wonderful world of language. Crystal's style is accessible, informative and entertaining, and the book is very readable. It is aimed, I would say, at an early teen audience, so at times the tone seems a little patronising, but that can be ignored for what is a brilliant resource for anyone interested in language.
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on 29 November 2010
I will have to say, with the many positive reviews I have read about this book I thought it would be a lot better than it was. It spend a lot of time talking about where to put your tongue within you mouth to make different sounds, and how a baby learns language. Where as I thought the book was going to be more about the interesting parts about language, like code and languages dying out. It did touch on these topics, however it felt like the book was written for a child and not an adult audience. I was hoping for a popular science book on language but instead I got a basics of language book where I learned nothing and felt like I was wasting my time.

Obviously, that is just my opinion, as many people seem to like this book, but it was not my cup of tea. I am considering reading 'through the language glass' in the hopes that it will cover the subject in greater depth and detail for the interesting topics.
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