How Language Works Book Summary - How Language Works Book explained in key points
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How Language Works summary

David Crystal

How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die

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20 mins

Brief summary

How Language Works by David Crystal explores the intricacies of language and its usage. The book delves into the science behind language, the history of different languages, and how they change over time. It also discusses the role of language in society and its impact on communication.

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    How Language Works
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    Language is an organized system of communication focused on productivity and duality of structure.

    These blinks are all about language. But what does that mean? What exactly is language? Well, for most of us, language can mean many different things.

    We try to read a person’s mood using “body language.” We teach our kids not to use “bad language.” If we want to agree with a good idea, sometimes we’ll say, “Now you’re talking my language!”

    But when professional linguists discuss language, they mean something very specific.

    The key message here is: Language is an organized system of communication focused on productivity and duality of structure.

    Now, the terms productivity and duality of structure are pretty abstract. It’s hard to get an idea of what they actually mean. So let’s break them down, starting with productivity.

    Productivity means that a language can be built upon and used to express an infinite number of ideas. Just think about how you can build a sentence. It’s possible to create a sentence that goes on forever. All you have to do is simply keep using the word “and.” This is an example of productivity in action.

    Or consider another example. We can take the building blocks of a language – it’s words, phrases and sentences – and use them to create new words which express new inventions and concepts. Every year, the world’s leading dictionaries make international news by formally inducting new words and phrases, like “traumatology” and “gig economy” into the lexicon. And every day, we create unique combinations of words to form sentences that express our thoughts, ideas, and emotions. The majority of these sentences combine words in ways they’ve never been used before and never will again. That’s pretty remarkable!

    So, that’s productivity. Now what about duality of structure?

    Duality of structure breaks language down into smaller building blocks. All languages can be broken down into one of two categories. The first is the meaningful elements of individual words, and the second is the distinctive but meaningless elements of individual sounds.

    Take the letters “G” “E” and “T”. Individually, the letters have no meaning. But combine them together and you’ve created the word “get,” a word with a clear meaning. This is the duality of structure, and it is unique to human language. The communication we see between animals does not have duality of structure. A dog can’t build a sentence or even a word out of multiple barks.

    So, that’s what language is. In the next blink, we’ll look at how we use it to communicate.

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    What is How Language Works about?

    How Language Works (2005) unlocks the secrets of how and why we communicate. Language is one of the defining characteristics that makes humans human. But because it’s such a fundamental concept, we rarely take the time to think about where it comes from or how it evolves. These blinks examine the historical and personal origins of language and the many different ways it affects our daily lives.

    How Language Works Review

    How Language Works (2006) is a fascinating exploration of the intricacies of language and why it captivates our attention. Here's why you should read it:

    • With a comprehensive scope, it covers topics like grammar, phonetics, semantics, and more, making it a thorough and insightful resource.
    • David Crystal combines his expertise in linguistics with a conversational tone, ensuring that the book is accessible and enjoyable for readers of all backgrounds.
    • Through numerous examples and anecdotes, the book brings language to life, highlighting its evolutionary nature and its impact on our everyday lives.

    Who should read How Language Works?

    • Language lovers curious to learn how language works
    • Those who appreciate the vast diversity of languages in the world
    • People concerned about endangered or extinct languages

    About the Author

    David Crystal is one of the world’s leading linguistic scholars. He has written or co-written dozens of books on the subject of language, including The Stories of English and Shakespeare’s Words. In 1995, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to the English language.

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    How Language Works FAQs 

    What is the main message of How Language Works?

    The main message of How Language Works is to explore and understand the intricacies of language and its vital role in human communication.

    How long does it take to read How Language Works?

    The reading time for How Language Works varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is How Language Works a good book? Is it worth reading?

    How Language Works is a fascinating book that delves into the complexities of language. It is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in linguistics and communication.

    Who is the author of How Language Works?

    David Crystal is the author of How Language Works.

    What to read after How Language Works?

    If you're wondering what to read next after How Language Works, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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    • The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker
    • Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch
    • The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte
    • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
    • The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr
    • Nine Nasty Words by John McWhorter