Review: Words, Words, Words – David Crystal

My bookshelf has quite a few different books, from quite a few different authors, but one author that seems to have made his way on to my shelf a number of times is David Crystal. Currently, I have Crystal’s The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language (I have the first edition and when I save up enough I’ll get the latest one!), English as a Global Language (second edition – and a must read for all teachers of English), The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot, and left (a hilarious read), and Words, Words, Words. For those of you who haven’t heard of David Crystal, I highly suggest you check him out – his achievements within the world of linguistics are incredible, and he is often cited as the world’s expert on the English language. His books are always lighthearted and easy to read, and in this post I’ll share my review of one of them: Words, Words, Words.

Three-sentence summary

David Crystal’s Words, Words, Words is a book for all language enthusiasts, teachers and learners alike – really, everyone should read this book! The book is made up of six sections, all aiming to develop the reader’s knowledge surrounding ‘words’, their history, meaning and use, and one of the section even provides advice on how to become a word detective, effectively empowering the reader with the abilities and know-how to take their learning further. Crystal educates in his typical lighthearted, comical, easy-to-read way, presenting ‘difficult’ linguistic concepts in laymen’s terms and with plenty of real-life examples – Words, Words, Words is as easy read, but packs a punch when talking about educational content.

Three take-aways

Like all the books I choose to read, this is full of many more than three take-aways, but I’ll write my top three below.

“My point is linguistic, not political. Every age has its pundits who reflect gloomily on the present state of the language, make dire prophecies about its future, and wish things were like the golden age they remember so well. But there was never any golden age.”

Crystal, 2006, p. 156
  • Languages are very much alive, moving, changing, borrowing, etc.: Crystal makes very clear throughout the book that language are anything but ‘static’. In fact, I would say that half the book is dedicated to showing how languages (English is the main language presented in the book, but by no means is the only language in focus) evolve, die, etc. and that we shouldn’t look at a language in its current state and think ‘this is it!’. I feel that as a teacher of English (or any modern language for that matter), this is something we should take into consideration. Of course, Crystal mentions that language change usually happens over a long time, but he also draws attention to how language change can happen quite quickly – he highlights the effect the internet has had on language especially.

“Words are a bit like children: we need to know how to look after them and to let them look after themselves; when to be proud of them, and when to be worried about them. To do all that, we need to find out as much as we can about them.”

Crystal, 2006, p. 6
  • Crystal advocates being ‘lexicographers’ and improving our understanding of words: Why? Well, the obvious reason is so that we can express ourselves as best as we can – and as accurately as we can. But Crystal also touches on a few others reasons: understanding what others are saying as well as having an awareness of the ‘power’ elements of language. Crystal (2006, p.128) writes that “if we want to purr” then we need to know which words will do this, and vice versa. Having an awareness this will help us in infinite contexts, and I can’t help but relate this to language learning (and the importance of going further that simply looking at dictionary definitions of lexis with our learners).

“And even if, through some magic, it was possible to present an account of all the words in a language today, the book would be out-of-date tomorrow. Languages change. Words change. Our feelings about words change. And not just over long periods of time. It needs only take a day. On 3 October 1957, ask anyone what a sputnik was, and they would have been mystified. A day later, the word was on everyone’s lips.”

Crystal, 2006, p. 3
  • Counting how many words are in a language is actually more difficult than it sounds: Crystal emphasises that while the ‘dictionary’ is often cited as the source to go to for an accurate count of the number of words in a language, we had best hold our horses as dictionaries don’t actually show us the whole picture. Below are but some of the things that we need to consider when trying to get a whole picture of the lexicon of a language.
    • Language change: So, as mentioned previously, language change is something that is happening all the time, and so with language change comes new words and new meanings for old words.
    • What is a word? Do names count? What about collocations, semi- and fixed expressions? What about inflectional affixation (e.g. adding an -ed to a regular verb to form its simple past form) or declensions? When we start think about what a ‘word’ actually is, things start to get messy.
    • Dialect vs. standard: Within the list of words we are trying to count, do we count dialect words as well? Or do we keep the count fixed on the current power/standard?

What I like

“If you have a deep interest in words, then the prospect of ‘studying them all’ is the most enticing of all opportunities. Each word is its own world, with a unique past, present and future. For lexicographers, there are no more intriguing, challenging, and rewarding tasks than to explore a word’s history, establish it current forms and senses, and capture novel trends in its usage. And the results of their work are extraordinarily seductive.”

Crystal, 2006 , p. 34
  • Written in a non-technical register: I love reading books that get into the nitty-gritty of topics, but every now and then it is nice to read a book that is written in such a way that it is accessible to a wider range of folks, and, consequently, is a little easier to process. This book certainly covers quite a lot of ground ‘technically’, but the way it is done is genius as the reader is never left to feel inadequate with regard to their level (or lack) of technical knowledge. Furthermore, the ‘technical’ terms that are introduced are done so in a way that they ‘seduce’ the reader into wanting more – Crystal makes even lexicography sound sexy, which is no mean feat.

“English is a vacuum-cleaner of a language. It sucks words from any language it makes contact with. Perhaps I should not anthropomorphize. A language has no life of its own. It exists only in the mouths and ears and hands and eyes and brains of its users. It is the English speakers who suck the words in. People like you and me.”

Crystal, 2006, p. 59
  • Puts ‘pundits’ in their place: Within linguistics, there are those ‘purists’ that believe that language should stay as it is, and then here are those that see language how it actually is: an ever evolving beast that can’t be stopped, no matter how many barriers, laws, forces goes against it. Of course, as Crystal writes, people are what change language, but change is inevitable. I like how Crystal presents this fact with plenty of evidence.
  • Crystal is hilarious: I found myself laughing quite a lot throughout the book, and to be honest it was quite nice to have a bit of change from the purely academic reads I’ve had my head in recently.
  • Loads of interesting facts about language: The books scope is actually quite wide, so it is difficult to really go deep into anything that he covers, but he does present many interesting facts about language. Here are a few of my favourite:
    • Highly-proficient adults speakers of a language have a ‘passive vocabulary’ that is about a third larger than their ‘active’. What this means is that we are are about to understand a third more of language than we are able to produce.
    • Someone tried to replace the word grammar with speech-craft because grammar comes from the Old French gramaire – and that just wasn’t English enough! I found this hilarious and also pretty cool – speech-craft does have a ring to it, don’t you think?
    • The study of names has a ‘name’: onomastics. Very interesting to see how names are words in their own right, and are heavily influenced by language. They can also take on their own meaning, quite separate from what they originally ‘meant’.
    • There is really no such thing as an ‘English’ accent as there are so many regional and local variations. Crystal points to the fact that there are about 350 language communities in London alone, and each of them have their own distinct phonological features.
  • Word detectives activities: The last section in the book focuses on things you can do to take your understanding of words further. I think many of these are actually things we can do with teachers in workshops or with learners in class. For example, the chapter on finding out the history of word presents the reader with some online sources such as this online etymology site, which can be used to explore the history of words -´and I can think of quite a few interesting activities for both the training room and classroom using this (e.g. getting learners to find out if their L1 has any ‘history’ with English words).

What I didn’t like

Hmm, not too much really. I didn’t go into the book expecting to come out with plenty of technical or pedagogical knowledge related to vocabulary. I really was looking for an easy read that would also have some benefit on my understanding of English as a language, and I feel that I got that. My only ‘complaint’ would that the activities in the word detective chapters lacked details – I feel that these could have benefited from some more detailed examples.

Who should read this book?

  • Language enthusiasts: If you’re interested in language and taking your knowledge a little bit further, then I would definitely recommend checking this out!
  • Teachers: You know what, I would actually recommend this to all teachers as it talks about some really important linguistic concepts (e.g. semantic fields, hypernyms, affixation, neologisms, etc.) in really easy-to-digest, bite-sized bits. Of course, to develop a much deeper understanding of the concepts, one would need to read a little more from other sources, but as an introduction to these terms, I think this book is excellent.
  • Learners: So, I wouldn’t recommend giving this book to learners, but I would recommend either using chapters as springboards from production or even using some of the word detective activities with them.

Final notes

Crystal’s Words, Words, Words is an easy and enjoyable read. To reiterate, you’re not going to be an expert on words after reading this book (or any book for that matter), but you will come away with a much clearer understanding of the basics. Definitely a quick read, so you might even pick it up when you’re looking to take a break from those ‘heavier’ books.

If you do decide to read this book, or if you have already, please let me know your thoughts! What were your major take-aways? 🙂

References

Crystal, D. (2006). Words, Words, Words. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Book details

Title: Words, Words, Words

Author: David Crystal

Pages: 215

ISBN: 9780199 210770

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