05/03/2013 09:40 GMT | Updated 01/05/2013 06:12 BST

Understanding Language with David Crystal

If you still believe grammar is dull, infinitives unsplittable and usage can be commanded by individual language bailiffs - you have never read or heard Crystal.

Only a few decades ago academics would frown at attempts to introduce language issues comprehensible to the general reader. It took a while for the hard-nosed academia to eventually start appreciating the productive demand for popular books on the subject.

In this respect, David Crystal has been unprecedented. Arguably the greatest linguistic shepherd, Crystal has a penchant for presenting language issues in a reader and listener friendly manner that will never leave you dry as you close one of his books or walk out of the hall where he has been lecturing.

Each one of the quarter of his over 100 books that I have read is a gem. I have seen dozens of university students take inspiration and motivation out of Crystal's words.

Following the fascinating DVD "The Future of Language", Routledge has recently produced another DVD of Crystal's lectures. Whilst the first one is a three-hour coverage of three major language topics, the new David Crystal's Introduction to Language DVD is a three-hour talk on a wider variety of language matter. Crystal's output is nicely presented in pairs of approx. 15-minute talks which are structured into six major topics.


Within the six core themes Crystal discusses the fundamental qualities of language, from system through structure and meaning to use and effect. His frequent references to the past practices and his future predictions help to gain a full perspective into the amazing human gift called language.

Crystal stresses the importance of the interlace of the three aspects of structure - semantics, grammar, mode of transmission.

"Grammar is there to make sense of semantics."

As a mode of transmission, speech is fundamental. Chomsky has famously brought forth the idea of LAD (language acquisition device). According to Crystal, children have MAD (multi-lingual acquisition device) and judging by his excellent relating of language development in the 21st century globalised children, he is absolutely spot on.

Writing being the second medium of human communication, we tend to take written language for granted yet the third of the world's 6000 or so languages have never been written down. And given the unfortunate rate of language death today, writing down the endangered languages is utterly crucial. Crystal also comments on the fascinating potential of the electronic medium where graphology manifests fresh possibilities in fonts, layout etc.

Talking of language variation, Crystal quotes Dr. Johnson saying "Trying to stop language change is like trying to lash the wind." Even though we are past the prescriptive syndrome, some people still do take language change painfully. Not once you will have heard proclamations in the vein of "Let's preserve the language Shakespeare spake."

Social status and personal background are another factor influencing our language use. Crystal mentions that the Edinburgh Scots and Yorkshire accents are the sexiest accents nowadays.

"Hello, would you like to buy some insurance? I've got some very expensive insurance."

"I don't care, I love you voice. I'll buy anything."

Personal style can be subject of study for Forensic Linguistics and Clinical Linguistics respectively, but its most direct manifestation is literature. Crystal sums up the talk with his brilliant artistic reading of an excerpt from a Pinter play.

"Literature is the Everest of language."

Crystal's last focus is discourse, where he emphasises, amongst other things, also the educative aspect.

"Discourse competence is our ability to use the various varieties of the language that are available to us... a linguistic wardrobe we have in our heads."

New discourses have been emerging, via telephone, newspapers, broadcasting and now the World Wide Web. These days, even policy and use of discourse may be changing - people tend to skim less on iPad and Kindle than when reading hardback, observes Crystal. Comparative discourses between languages have yet to be studied.

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

School and university teachers will find the resource highly productive for interactive classroom use. As the nods and jots of Crystal's immediate audience of A-levels and undergraduates convey, you are in for "three hours' traffic of our stage" to be informed, educated and entertained by the remarkable language rhetorician. Moreover, there is the sistering website with useful extras, such as clips, synopses, commentary, glossary, flashcards, further reading, index , multiple-choice questions and other activities - as always, Routledge lives up to our linguistic expectations. My own use of the DVD with my senior undergraduates has seen the anticipated results.

The DVD can be purchased via Routledge as well as other stores and is worth every penny.