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Review of  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language

Reviewer: Michael Crombach
Book Title: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language
Book Author: David Crystal
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 22.1012

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AUTHOR: Crystal, David
TITLE: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Third Edition.
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2010

Michael Crombach, Nuance Communications Austria


David Crystal's (DC) 500+ page book is divided up into 11 parts and a total of
65 chapters. Additionally there are the prefaces to the three editions up to now
and appendices containing the indices on topics, languages, authors, a table of
the world's languages etc. Although the headings and sub-headings are
self-explanatory the following gives a sentence or two about the sections, many
of which have an average length of two pages. The plan of the book forms some
kind of an arch or even a circle, leading from topics at the edge of linguistics
over the core linguistic topics to questions again at the interface to other
sciences. This makes perfect sense, as it guides the reader to the core
questions concerning language, that are hard to understand without a proper
presentation of the complexities of language, and on the other side it explains
why the issues dealt with by linguistics are relevant in everyday life.

Part I. Popular Ideas About Language (1-15)

1. The prescriptive tradition
These pages are actually an overview of a history of linguistics before
linguistics; DC will come back to this historical view on pp. 428-433. It also
illustrates that the impression of language decline is as old as the awareness
of language.

2. The equality of languages
DC tries to illustrate and emphasize the intrinsic equality of all language, and
that differences in the esteem of languages stem from social or economical

3. The magic of language
This chapter illustrates the close link between language and religion. The
archaic belief that language has ''magical powers'' is still found today in
linguistic behavior, as in taboo and euphemism.

4. The functions of language
In sum DC lists seven different functions of language, but he does not decide on
one primary function. The functions listed by DC are: ''emotional expression''
(10), ''social interaction'' (10), ''the power of sound'' (11), ''the control of
reality'' (12), ''recording the facts'' (12), ''the instrument of thought'' (13),
''expression of identity'' (13).

5. Language and thought
Here the close connection of language and thought is illustrated, by introducing
the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. DC argues that a weaker form of the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis is widely accepted.

Part II. Language and Identity (17-81)

6. Physical identity
This is about the anatomical and biological foundations of our linguistic
identity. Age, pitch, sex, size: all these aspects contribute to our linguistic

7. Psychological identity
Personality and even intelligence have influence on our language. DC is careful
enough to point out that these two aspects are very prone to stereotypes that
have to be questioned.

8. Geographical identity
This is a relatively extensive chapter spanning over ten pages. The length is
closely related to the importance and the practical relevance of this topic. DC
discusses the difficulties of distinguishing languages and dialects, dialects
and idiolects, accents and dialects.

9. Ethnic and national identity
This chapter seamlessly blends into the preceding chapter. Again DC illustrates
the difficulties in these relations. This is even more important and relevant as
it is still a dominant issue in politics and everyday life.

10. Social identity
This is a longer chapter dealing with the interaction of language with social
stratification, status, and role. How is language used to express solidarity and
distance? Sexism and borrowing (DC suggests it would be better to call this
phenomenon ''sharing'' (48)), are also introduced in this chapter.

11 Contextual identity
Again a long chapter (50-67); DC covers a wide range of issues, divided into the
following areas: setting, participants and activity. The influence of these on
language are presented using very different examples from German tax-income
forms to heraldry; Maori greetings to seaspeak, secret and hidden languages,
riddles, word games and puns. Anagrams, lipograms, palindromes close the chapter
and mark the transition to the next chapter.

12. Stylistic identity and literature
Style and authorship lead to forensic linguistics, the difference between
literary and non-literary language, and literary genres. Poetry, drama and the
novel, and finally text deconstruction are presented in this lengthy chapter

Part III. The Structure of Language

13. Linguistic levels
This is now the core area in linguistics. DC introduces the complexity of
layering language, and in consequence the difficulties in ordering these layers.
DC clearly establishes the approach used in this book (85). On the top level he
presents the distinction of structure and use, linked by pragmatics. The
structure of language is then split into three branches; medium of transmission
(phonetics and phonology), grammar (morphology and syntax) and finally,
meaning/semantics (lexicon and discourse).

14. Typology and universals
The never-ending discussion is summarized in four pages. This seems little, but
DC manages to present the most important aspects of the universals discussion.

15. The statistical structure of language
Georg K. Zipf and his groundbreaking works are presented here in a concise overview.

16. Grammar
DC presents in a longer chapter various ''types'' of grammar, i.e. what is
commonly referred to as grammar can differ significantly. ''Grammar'' can refer to
a book designed for second language learners just as to the transformational
grammar as laid out by Chomsky in the 1980s. In the next step DC presents the
different notions involved in grammar, such as morphology, syntax and word order.

17. Semantics
Again a chapter longer than the 2-page average; DC presents the most important
aspects of modern semantics. He only very briefly touches on ''propositional
meaning'' (111), but at the same time names this ''the most important trend in
modern semantics''. So, this aspect could have deserved a little more attention.

18. Dictionaries
Semantics is of course closely linked to dictionaries. DC presents a history of
lexicography as well as a checklist for buying a dictionary (115).

19. Names
This section deals with the various names that are essential to language:
personal names, place names, brand names.

20. Discourse and text
Communicational success and the structure of texts are discussed in this chapter.

21. Pragmatics
DC introduces speech acts and illustrates the interface position of pragmatics,
connecting semantics, stylistics, psycholinguistics and discourse.

The following three parts deal with the channels of language. DC starts with the
most natural and unmarked one and moves on to the more advanced or specialized
ways of conveying language.

Part IV. The Medium of Language: Speaking and Listening (126-183)

22. The anatomy and physiology of speech
DC devotes eight pages to the anatomical and motoric basis of language. From the
lungs to teeth and lips the essential processes of sound production are shown
using very illustrative pictures.

23. The acoustics of speech
This is a more complicated issue, presented in a very compact, comprehensive way.

24. The instrumental analysis of speech
The incredible advanced tools and machines used to analyze speech in real-time
are explained and shown. This section is certainly one of the parts in the book
that profited most from the update.

25. Speech reception
DC introduces the ear and its functioning and explains the differences between
hearing and listening. This chapter also touches on the roles ascribed to the
listener: is listening to language an active or passive role? ''It [...] seems
likely that some combination of active and passive theories will be required'' is
the wise conclusion that DC draws.

26. Speech interaction with machines
These pages deal with the various problems that arise when language is used as
an interface to machines: speech recognition, to be divided into the detection
of speech vs. background noises, speaker detection and identification, speech
synthesis, artificial production of language with text-to-speech as the most
important case.

27. The sounds of speech
This is now the phonetics part that adds what in a first reading is missing in
the anatomy and physiology of speech (Chapter 22): the naming of sounds, the
organization of sounds into different classes. Finally DC introduces the IPA,
but fails to mention that (as can be seen from the dictionary samples quoted on
112) many English dictionaries still neglect the existence of such a standard,
although it is taught e.g. in French schools to children from 7 years on.

28. The linguistic use of sound
This part now introduces the terms 'phonemes', 'allophones', 'minimal pairs',
'distinctive features'. Furthermore it gives a detailed description of the
various sound-groups and vowel systems. (A small typo on p. 168: the
corresponding sound for ''seat'' /i:/ in the table on the left is missing for the
example ''sit''; presumably /I/ in SAMPA-notation - ''unrounded, close mid, half
frontal vowel''.)

29. Suprasegmentals
Prosody, again: After the demonstration of how it is used in semantics (see p.
111), now a more global approach to the use of suprasegmental information. DC
also adds methods of capturing suprasegmental features; the relation of speech
and music and tone languages are the topic of this chapter.

30. Sound symbolism
Certain sounds are associated with certain properties, e.g. /i/ is somehow
linked to ''light, bright, pointed, tiny'', but DC also makes clear that there are
many counter examples, e.g. ''big'' vs. ''small'', and that these aspects may be
fascinating, but due to the lack of quantitative analyses throughout the
languages of the world, have to be handled with care.

Part V. The Medium of Language: Writing and Reading (184-227)

31. Written and spoken language
DC presents a brief overview on the relationship of speech and writing, and
discusses the differences. Two pages (188-189) are devoted to the mapping of
speech to writing, the means introduced are ''verbal description'', ''spelling'',
''capitalization'' amongst others. This provides a smooth transition to the next

32. Graphic expression
Lists, matrices, etc. are presented together with a general overview on ''modes
of graphic expression''. Actually, the whole book is a very clear example of all
the various methods of graphical representation of language. Graphetics
(''physical properties of the symbols that constitute a writing system'' (193)),
handwriting, print, electronic media are dealt with. DC also provides a basic
introduction into layout questions, such as justification, etc.

33. Graphology
The first issue is to distinguish linguistic from psychological graphology, the
latter an attempt to interpret character and personality from handwriting.
Linguistic graphology on the other hand studies ''the physical properties of
manuscript, print, and other forms of graphic expression'' (204). In this chapter
DC also provides a condensed history of writing and introduces various writing

34. The process of reading and writing
DC gives an overview of the theories of reading, the issues related to ''writing''
and ''spelling''. Finally, DC discusses the pros and cons of an orthographic
reform in English.

Part VI. The Medium of Language: Signing and Seeing (228-235)

35. Sign language
In this chapter DC stresses the relevance of sign-languages for linguistic
research and argues against common misconceptions regarding sign language.

36. Sign language structure
DC explains certain, commonly unknown facts about sign language, e.g. the usage
of space to express time, or the ''aspect modulations''.

37. Types of sign language
This is a short chapter with a lot of illustrations to explain sign language as
such and to point out the differences between various sign languages.

Part VII. Child Language Acquisition (236-265)

38. Investigating children's language
As one of the most relevant issues in child language acquisition is the data
collection, DC introduces the various research paradigms and methods. This
eight-page chapter closes with an overview on the main language acquisition

39. The first year
The first year of a baby's linguistic development is presented in a fast-forward
mode, introducing the first vocalizations to the melodic utterances that develop
into language, the perception and interaction within the short non-linguistic
period in the human life cycle.

40. Phonological development
This chapter explains the acquisition of sounds from the 13th month onwards.

41. Grammatical development
From one word to two words and beyond, the emergence of questions, and the
structure of asking are presented in this chapter.

42. Semantic development
Learning vocabulary and refinement of semantic use, the explosion of language
use during childhood are the topic of these two pages.

43. Pragmatic development
DC illustrates that it takes more to communicate than sounds, meanings and
structure. Language has to be used properly. This is a process that also has to
be learned.

44. Language development in school
School and language are a strongly interlinked area. Language starts to become
structured; reading and writing are introduced and have to be mastered. DC
introduces the current approaches and points to common misconceptions, e.g. that
poor handwriting is in any way linked to personality or intelligence (263).

Part VIII. Language, Brain, and Disability (266-291)

45. Language and the brain
This chapter is a concise two-page introduction into the basics of the human
brain and the critical period in language acquisition and leads to slips of the
tongue and the tragic case of ''Genie,'' a child who was ''brought up in condition
of human neglect and extreme isolation'' (273), which proved a soft version of
the critical period hypothesis.

46. Language disability
A long section (18 pages) on the different forms of language impairment. After
an introduction into the classification and the causes of language disabilties
DC explains deafness (276-277), aphasia and its types (280-281), dyslexia and
dysgraphia (282-285), voice disorders (286), articulation disorders (287),
fluency disorders (288), and language delay (289). The chapter closes with a
very short presentation of ''alternative communication systems'' that can enable
handicapped people in their communicative needs.

Part IX. The Languages of the World (292-349)

The last three parts now lead a little bit further from the main/core/mainstream
linguistics. Again DC deals with topics that are of great interest especially
for the general reader. DC tries to provide scientifically sound answers to
frequently asked questions.

47. How many languages?
As in the beginning in chapter 8 ''Language and Geography'' (p. 24ff), DC briefly
outlines the problems in distinguishing languages and dialects. The chapter also
includes a short introduction into the naming of languages.

48. How many speakers?
Another very common question in connection with language(s) is the language with
the most speakers. DC refers to Appendix III and explains that all these numbers
are estimates.

49. The origins of language
After a short overview of the pre-scientific considerations about the origins of
language DC presents a short overview on the evolution of language without going
into too much detail.

50. Families of language
DC presents the origins of the concept that some languages are more closely
related than others. He also introduces the ''Comparative Method'' and explains
the two general types of linguistic classification, ''genetic classification'' and
''typological classification''. (DC refers also to ''areal classification'' as
introduced in Chapter 8.) Of course DC again stresses the difficulties there are
in sorting languages into these given categories.

51. The Indo-European family
These eight pages give a very concise overview on the history and findings of
Indo-European linguistics, and they also introduce the subfamilies of
Indo-European. DC uses Celtic as an example to illustrate the more detailed
history of an Indo-European language.

52. Other families
Twenty pages illustrate the diversity of the world's language families.
Supported by maps, this is a very impressive overview of the sheer amount of
languages out there.

53. Language isolates
A chapter that stimulates the interests and fantasies of many people; it deals
with a topic that leads to amusing speculations about the relations of these
languages. But they are commonly classified as ''isolated'' because, as DC
comments, e.g. for Sumerian, ''[a]ttempts have been made to relate the language
[...] but none has been successful.'' (336)

54. Language change
Still a very mysterious phenomenon is described in this chapter. Languages
change, in sound, grammar and semantics. DC explains how the pronunciation of
former times can be reconstructed without tape recordings, and the typical
phenomena of sound change, like assimilation and haplology (but DC leaves out
the pun that ''haplology'' is in itself a good candidate for a ''haplogy'') are

55. Pidgins and creoles
A fascinating and in the public hardly recognized field of linguistics involves
the emergence of new languages, through pidgin stages; that is, a language as a
means of communication ''which has grown up among people who do not share a
common language'' (344) to a full-fledged language. This chapter also includes a
listing of pidgins and creoles with a very short description of influences and
the region where the language is used.

Part X. Language in the World (350-417)

Again a new major section begins; again it is skillfully linked to the previous

56. The language barrier
Language is not only a means of communication but also an obstacle in
communication. This can be clearly seen in globalized economics: business can
become difficult when the fact that the customer does not (or is not willing to)
speak English is neglected.

57. Translating and interpreting
A consequence of the language barrier is translation. DC gives an account of the
complications and obstacles that may occur in the translation process.
Transliteration and false friends are presented as well as the art of
interpreting. The chapter closes with a status description and a look into the
future of machine translation.

58. Artificial languages
DC gives a five page overview on the motivations for and historical background
of artificial languages. After a description of the ideal artificial language,
DC explains why all attempts have failed so far.

59. World languages
The ''International year of languages 2008'' and the ''International
Mother-Language Day'' (February 21st), ''European Day of Languages'' (September
26th) are presented in this part as well as the varieties of English and its
speakers found around the planet.

60. Multilingualism
DC starts out with the important statement that multilingualism is a very common
thing, not a special case, and he also explains the reasons for multilingualism.
The related issue discussed here is bilingualism.

61. Language planning
Creating and or choosing an alphabet, deciding on an orthography, or changing it
are part of language planning, just as role of the mother tongue in the
educational programs are part of this field. DC also adds the large, interesting
and important topic ''endangered languages'' here. The reasons for language death
and endangerment are discussed, just as reasons and methods for the preservation
of languages are listed.

62. Foreign language teaching and learning
Reasons for and methods of second language acquisition are presented on ten pages.

63. Language for special purposes
The language of science, law, medicine and religion are used as examples of how
language can be put into use in a way that is not intelligible without a certain
amount of knowledge beyond the language itself. But the press and advertisements
also have characteristics that can be investigated. DC introduces the EMC
(electronically mediated communication) that ''is in many respects similar to
spoken or written language, [...] but its configuration turns out to be unique.''

Part XI. Language and Communication (418-438)

64. Language and other communication systems
The beginning part of many introductory courses to linguistics comes at the end:
language and communication. Why is the dance of the bees not a language, but a
means of communication? Language trained apes and other aspects of communication
(e.g. tactile factors) are presented.

65. Linguistics
From the Greeks and the ancient Indians via the Middle Ages and Renaissance to
Ferdinand de Saussure and finally Noam Chomsky, DC rushes through the history of
linguistics. This closes the cycle to ''linguistics before linguistics'' at the
beginning of the book, in chapter 1. A double page on the most critical part of
linguistic work, data collection, follows. The use of computers in linguistics
and the ''domain of linguistics'' close the text part of the book.

Pages 441-513 are the mentioned Appendices, followed by acknowledgements.


''The main aim of this encyclopedia is to provide information about all aspects
of language structure and use, so that the complex forces which act upon
language, and upon the people who use it, will be more readily understood.'' (1)
DC manages this huge endeavor a third time. It is a real challenge to adequately
review this book. I used the German translation of the first edition (Crystal
1993) every now and then, but I never READ, let alone reflected on it. When I
received my evaluation copy in a 2.6 kg parcel I started reading and page by
page I admired more the diligent efforts to present human language in all its
miraculous wanderings: from the stylistic theories of Ancient Rome to the latest
findings using PET (positron emission tomography) machines.

Pictures, maps, tables and text boxes make it an adventurous journey through
language. But at the same time I realized the short-coming of such a book:
whenever something starts to get interesting, more specific information has to
be searched in the references, and here the book also gives only a glimpse of
the amounts of contributions available in each subfield of language. But, this
book at least provides a starting point.

The question that arises out of these limitations is: Who is the book written
for? The book certainly is no replacement for an introductory course in
linguistics, even less an introduction to one of the subfields. DC cannot - and
does not intend - to replace Hurford et al.'s (2007) ''Semantics. A coursebook'',
or Radford's (1988) ''Transformational grammar: A first course'', or more advanced
and exposed works such as Chomsky (1995) ''The minimalist program''. It is
primarily a work of orientation, a book recommendable to everyone interested in
language and especially the beginning student of linguistics to gain an
overview. DC is the perfect evening lecture for the advanced and professional
linguist to broaden their scope. In doing everyday linguistic work one is prone
to lose the larger picture of language. DC reminds us of the various
dependencies and fields and facts mentioned many years ago in introductory
courses when we were at university. This is the great strength of this book.

A very positive aspect is that DC tries to stay neutral, and present all
approaches to language in approximately the same detail; this is what makes a
significant difference to other books that deal in a very general way with
language, e.g. Jackendoff 2002; in this encyclopedia of language the
encyclopedic approach is fully met and weighted against a single - however good
or coherent - picture of language.

Another important thing that this book could achieve is that it might reduce the
number of people that consider themselves linguistic experts just because they
speak a language. This is the great misconception of ''native-speaker'': speaking
a language enables (intuitive and situational) judgments about sentences or
utterances, but does not entail an understanding of linguistics. This book
allows the general reader, the native-speaker, to glimpse the vast complexities
of language, and all the trapdoors hidden in presumably simple answers to even
simpler questions, like ''Where are you from?'' All answers like ''America'', ''East
Coast'', ''New York'', ''Brooklyn'' are correct (24).

DC is the proof that there is more to language and linguistics than
''Sprachkritik''. ''Remember always that a language is what the speakers do and not
what someone thinks they ought to do,'' as Bloomfield (1942:16) put it. And that
discussions about language should not stop with obligatory language courses for

It would not do the book justice to quibble about incidentally discovered minor
errors; I only mention them, to have them fixed in upcoming editions: the Åland
islands should be included to the Scandinavian dialect continuum in Europe (map
on 25) rather than in the North Slavic. It would be useful to add the example
''John's BOUGHT a red car (not stolen or borrowed)'' on p. 111 to make clear that
prosodic meaning is not restricted to nouns or adjectives, but can also affect
verbs. Of course there are always things that could have been added. Just to
give an example, in the chapter on sound symbolism (182f) it could be nice to
add a paragraph about the rather absurd discussions concerning the ''sacred u'' in
the first half of the 19th century (Havers 1947). Finally, a typo on p. 80:
''Tests were seen...'' instead of the correct ''Texts were seen...''

Overall this is a very useful advertisement for the science of linguistics
(although it is not an encyclopedia of _linguistics_, that presents and/or
explains all the different linguistic schools and theories, methods and
terminologies!) and a valuable and concise, though not handy, handbook for
linguistic beginners, linguistic researchers looking for a quick overview and,
most of all, the general reader interested in language.


Bloomfield, L. 1942. Outline guide for the practical study of foreign languages.
Baltimore: LSA, Waverly Press.

Chomsky, N. 1995. The minimalist program. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Crystal, D. 1993. Die Cambridge Enzyklopädie der Sprache. Frankfurt/Main: Campus.

Havers, W. 1947. Zur Entstehung eines sogenannten sakralen u--Elementes in den
indogermanischen Sprachen. (Ein Versuch über die Lautbedeutsamkeit in indogerm.
Frühzeit.) Anzeiger der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
Philosophisch--historische Klasse. 84, 139--165.

Hurford, J., B. Heasley, and M. B. Smith. 2007. Semantics. A coursebook. 2nd.
Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackendoff, R. 2002. Foundations of language. Brain, Meaning, Grammar,
Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Radford, A. 1988. Transformational grammar. A first course. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Michael Crombach is a research and development engineer at Nuance Communications Austria, working on statistical language models and phonetic transcriptions for speech recognition systems. He has a background in historical linguistics (Ph.D.) and biology. His main interests are biology and evolution of language, statistics and language, and theory and history of linguistics.

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