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How Language Works

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

By David Crystal
13-minute read
Audio available
How Language Works by David Crystal

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.

  • 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

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

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

By David Crystal
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
How Language Works by David Crystal
Synopsis

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.

Key idea 1 of 8

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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