The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language

David Crystal

Cambridge University Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language is a broad survey of language and linguistics, aimed at a popular audience. It is organised thematically, with sixty five chapters divided into eleven parts. Part one highlights popular ideas (and especially misconceptions) about language, covering such topics as description versus prescription and the equality of languages. Part two considers the ways in which language is tied up with notions of identity — personal, social, and national. And part three introduces the traditional material of linguistics: the structure of language, typologies, universals, grammar, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and so forth. Parts four to six explore the different media of language: reading and writing, speaking and listening, and signing and seeing. Part seven explores child language acquisition and part eight the relationship of the brain to language and language handicaps. Part nine surveys the variety of languages around the world, their distribution and their historical relationships, and part ten the varied roles language plays in different areas of human life. And part eleven touches briefly on the history of modern linguistics and the relationship between language and non-linguistic communication systems.

The Encyclopedia of Language is not meant to be read in large portions. Nor, though provided with good indices and glossary, is it primarily a reference. It is, rather, a volume designed for dipping into and browsing, for casual perusal. Individual articles are written so they can stand by themselves and the longest are of only a few pages. Most are shorter, with many columns, boxes, and side-bars of just a few paragraphs, and there are usually several places to start reading on any page.

It is hard to convey a feel for a volume organised like this, but opening it at random three times will give the general idea. Pages 82-83 explore the issue of linguistic levels: How many levels does language have? Which one should come first in linguistics? This is illustrated with diagrams for some of the different models of spoken language structure that have been suggested. The main text on pages 264-5 covers "neurophysiological models of language" and "slips of the tongue - or brain?". In smaller print we have boxes on the Genie case (language development of a neglected child), the classification of tongue slips, and the debate over "critical periods" in language development. In the margin we have a small reproduction of a painting of Spooner and an account of the origin of the term "spoonerism". Pages 328-9 survey language isolates: brief descriptions of some sixteen are arranged around a world map showing their locations (and illustrated with small colour photographs).

Real depth of treatment is of course impossible with such a format, making the more theoretical topics hard to deal with: one can hardly get far into phrase structure grammar in a page, for example. It is not surprising, therefore, that the work is strongest in the more "applied" areas. Many curious and intriguing pieces of information are presented.

Charles V of Germany is said to have spoken French to men, Italian to women, Spanish to God, and German to horses!
"In response to the question 'Will you marry me?', silence in English would be interpreted as uncertainty; in Japanese it would be acceptance. In Igbo, it would be considered a denial if the woman were to continue to stand there, and an acceptance if she ran away."

Such facts are usually used to illustrate more general principles, however. Crystal has produced some accessible general introductions to topics which are rarely treated at this level, and he provides further reading suggestions for those who want to find out more.

I have one minor gripe with The Encyclopedia of Language. The right-hand margins on each page are used for short side-bars. This is a great idea, but the paperback edition doesn't open out flat, making those on the left-hand page very difficult to read. A similar problem occurs with photographs and maps that span two pages. Otherwise the volume is visually not just appealing but positively enticing. Maps and tables are used effectively and the illustrations are useful and informative as well as attractive, only occasionally purely decorative. The Encyclopedia of Language should be widely appreciated, and should do much to improve popular understanding of language and linguistics.

November 1997

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%T The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language
%A Crystal, David
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1997
%O paperback, 2nd edition, colour photos, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0521559677
%P vii,480pp