The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language

My purpose in writing this book is to celebrate the existence of human language, and to provide a tribute to those who engage in its study. Its aim is to illustrate the enormous diversity of the world’s languages, and the great range, complexity, and beauty of expression that can be encountered in any of them, whether spoken by millions or by hundreds – from the most polished formulations of respected literature to the most routine utterances of everyday conversation. At the same time, I want to convey something of the fascination and value of linguistic research, which has led to innumerable general findings about language structure, development, and use, and which has prompted so many important applications in relation to the problems of the individual and society. The book therefore operates on two levels. It reflects the kind of interest in language history and behaviour that we encounter daily as we argue over the history of a word’s meaning or listen in fascination to a young child’s early attempts to talk. At the same time, it reflects a deeper level of interest, arising out of our attempt to make sense of what we observe, and to find patterns and principles in it – an interest that can lead to a professional career in linguistic research or in one of the language-related professions, such as language teaching or therapy.

I have certain practical aims also. I hope the book will help promote an informed awareness of the complexity of human language, draw attention to the range of human problems that have a linguistic cause or solution, and emphasize the fact that people have language rights which should not be neglected. In early 1987, in fact [as the first edition of this book was going to press], I received a copy of a plea for a ‘Declaration of Individual Linguistic Rights’, sponsored by Francisco Gomes de Matos of the Federal University of Pernambuco, Recife, Brazil. The plea points to the widespread occurrence of linguistic prejudice and discrimination around the world, and to the problems people face when they wish to receive special help in language learning and use.

All people have the right to use their mother tongue, to learn a second language, to receive special treatment when suffering from a language handicap ... but in many parts of the world, these rights are absent or inadequately provisioned. Only concentrated public attention on the issues will promote the recognition of such rights, and it is my hope that this encyclopedia will play its part in helping to develop a climate where people will sense the importance of language in the individual and in society, and act accordingly. I have used the term ‘encyclopedia’, but not without misgivings: if there were a term for ‘embryo encyclopedia’, it would be better.
The subject of language is truly vast, and it is possible only to make a start in under 500 pages. In particular, because my background is in linguistics, I am conscious of paying insufficient attention to other traditions of thinking and research, such as in philosophy, psychology, and artificial intelligence. Also, although I write from a linguistic point of view, this book is not an introduction to linguistics: I have stopped short of a discussion of the many approaches to the analysis of language that linguistics provides, and I give few technical details about theoretical differences, hoping that my references will provide sources for those who wish to enquire into these matters further. This is just one of many apologies scattered throughout the book. Facts about the use of language are extremely difficult to come by, and, when obtained, fall quickly out of date. Language changes rapidly, as do the techniques and theories that scholars devise to study it. On the other hand, few books can have been written with such an optimistic outlook – thanks largely to the backing and enthusiasm of the team of editorial advisors appointed by Cambridge University Press:
Charles Ferguson (Stanford University),
Victoria A. Fromkin (University of California),
Shirley Brice Heath (Stanford University),
Dell Hymes (University of Virginia),
Stephen Levinson (University of Cambridge),
John Marshall (The Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford),
Wilga Rivers (Harvard University),
Sheldon Rosenberg (University of Illinois),
Klaus Scherer (University of Geneva),
Roland Sussex (University of Melbourne),
Jan Svartvik (Lund University),
Michael Twyman (University of Reading),
and C. F. and F. M. Voegelin (Indiana University).
To know that one’s plans and material will be scrutinized by scholars of such eminence is immensely reassuring, and I have benefitted immeasurably from their advice while the book was being written. I am therefore delighted to acknowledge my debt of gratitude to these advisors: it has been a privilege to have their support, and I hope the result does them no disservice. Needless to say, the responsibility for what remains is mine alone. Finally, it is my pleasant duty to thank members of the Department of Linguistic Science, University of Reading, and of the Centre for Information on Language Teaching, London, for help in researching aspects of the work; the editorial and design staff of the Press, for their invaluable advice during the period of this book’s preparation; and, above all, the support and assistance of my wife, Hilary, in helping this project come to fruition.

Holyhead, March 1987


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Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-51698-3 — The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language
David Crystal
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