David Crystal

David Crystal


David Crystal is honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, and the editor of The Penguin Encyclopedia.


David Crystal

David Crystal



David Crystal on How Language Works

How Language Works is not about music, or cookery, or sex. But is about how we talk about music, cookery, and sex-or, indeed, about anything at all.

How to Treat Body LanguageSome societies are much more tolerant of touching than others, so much so that a distinction has been proposed between contact and non-contact societies…In some cultures, conversationalists touch each other two or three times a minute; in others, no touching takes place at all.

The Visual ModeA thumbs–up has a positive ‘all is well’ or ‘I am winning’ meaning in Western Europe…But in the Arab world, as well as in parts of Africa and Asia, it is a symbol of insult, equivalent to giving someone ‘the finger’ (‘up yours!’) in the West. As a consequence, it was never entirely clear, during the aftermath of the Iraq War of 2003, when Iraqis were seen on television giving the thumbs up…whether this was a traditional gesture being used as an insult or whether it was the Western version being adopted as a sign of cooperation.

Properties of LanguageThe potential of body language is to express meaning is limited…Language…displays certain properties which enable us to express far more than any piece of non-verbal communication could ever do.

Even the most sophisticated kinds of {animal} behaviour, such as bee-dancing or birdsong, are highly limited in what they can do, compared with language. Bees can ‘talk’ about nectar, but not much else.

Being ParalinguisticA giggle can convey humour, innuendo, sexual interest, and several other nuances. In Britain it is most commonly used in joking; in Japan it is more often a sign of embarrassment.

When we learn Portuguese we find that nasal tones of voice are used differently. And when foreigners learn English, they have to do different things too: Finns learning English have to stop ‘creaking’ their voice so much, for otherwise they give the impression of being perpetually disparaging.

Using Manual SignalsSome monastic orders have developed signing systems of considerable sophistication, especially if their members are vowed to silence…A Trappist monk would make little headway signing at a football referee, and vice versa. These signalling systems are highly restricted methods of communication, invented to solve a particular problem. They are a step or so above basic body gestures, but not much more than that.

Indeed, some 40 per cent of human languages (about 2,000 in all) have never been written down. For their speakers, the topic ‘how language works’ could mean only one thing: ‘how speech works.’

Making Unusual SoundsMost of the sounds made by human beings in the 6,000 or so languages of the world use an outward flow of lung air. And the diversity of these sounds is made possible by a collaboration between larynx, mouth and nose.

Varying IntensityWe are able to hear a vast range of sound intensities. A loud shout is a million times more powerful than a whisper. It has been estimated that the human ear is sensitive to about 10 million million units of intensity.

How we Organise the Sounds of SpeechNo two speakers have anatomically identical vocal tracts, and thus no-one pronounces sounds in exactly the same way as anyone else…We think of our fellow-speakers as using the same sounds, even though acoustically they are not.

How we Use Tone of VoiceA level tone conveys boredom or sarcasm when it is used at the end of a sentence in English. But it has no such meaning at the end of a sentence in Russian. At the same time, we have to recognise that some tones of voice are widely used. People all over the world express their anger by speaking with increased loudness, raised pitch height and faster speed. That behaviour may well be universal.

How Children Learn Speech Sounds: The First YearStudies have shown how babies turn their heads towards the source of a sound within the first few days of life, and prefer human voices to non-human sounds as early as two weeks. Abilities of this kind are so apparent that researchers have concluded that some auditory training must begin within the womb.

How Dictionaries WorkFor as book that is viewed with a level of respect normally accorded only to the bible, it is remarkable how casually dictionary-users treat their dictionaries.

Most people who would check out every tiny feature of their new car before buying it are unaware of the power that lies under the bonnet of their dictionary.

Changing MeaningMost words have experienced several changes in meaning throughout their history, so that it is impossible to say which stage in their meaning is the ‘true’ meaning. And if we attempt to go back to ‘the beginning’, we find it is impossible, for the original history of most words is quite lost.

Virtually any object can be addressed as if it were a person, even though we know it cannot respond. ‘Aren’t you lovely!’ said a man outside the window of a car showroom, unaware that a linguist was passing him at the time.

And most of us have experienced the pseudo-dialogue when the dentist, having filled your mouth with teeth-sinking equipment, asks you whether you enjoyed your holiday.

How Conversation WorksA successful conversation is not a game: it is no more than a mutually satisfying linguistic exchange. Few rules are ever stated explicitly…Furthermore, apart from in certain types of argument and debate, there are no winners.

Telling a Person’s SexWomen have been found to ask more questions, make more use of positive and encouraging ‘noises’ (such as mhm), use a wider intonational range and a more marked rhythmical stress, and make much greater use of the pronouns you and we. By contrast, men are much more likely to interrupt (more than three times as much in some studies), to dispute what has been said, to introduce more new topics into the conversation, and to make more declarations of fact and opinion.

Guessing Where Someone is FromThese days, dialect identification has become much more difficult, mainly because of increased social mobility.

Also, as towns and cities grow, once- distinct communities merge, with a consequence of blurring speech patterns. And nowadays, through radio and television, there is much more exposure to a wide range of dialects, which can influence the speech of listeners or viewers even within their own homes.

Learning About Language as AdultsLanguages should be thought of as national treasures, and treated accordingly. If you do, this book is just one of many you will read.

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