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Review of  Language Revolution

Reviewer: Federico Gobbo
Book Title: Language Revolution
Book Author: David Crystal
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.1500

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Date: Tue, 10 May 2005 11:54:11 +0200
From: Federico Gobbo
Subject: The Language Revolution

AUTHOR: Crystal, David
TITLE: The Language Revolution
PUBLISHER: Polity Press
YEAR: 2004

Federico Gobbi, Insubria University, Varese, Italy


This book aims to describe the main language problems humankind
face worldwide and proposes an agenda for linguists called 'Themes
for the 21st Century'. As declared in the preface, readers of previous
works by the same author (in particular: Crystal 1997, 2000, 2001)
may have a sense of déjà vu, but this book goes further indeed,
especially in its last chapter.

In the first chapter, 'The Future of Englishes', which actualizes Crystal
1997, the reader is introduced in the complex realm of the life of the
English language. Starting from the statistics, we learn that among a
quarter of the world's population have a reasonable good command of
English, and moreover, the number of second and foreign speakers
will exceed native ones in the next century. How English achieved
such a unique status? Crystal's answer is based on the main facts:
politics, economics, the press, advertising, broadcasting, motion
pictures, popular music, international travels and safety, education,
and communication. Such a spreading of a single language is a
novelty in history, so it is difficult to say what will happen.
Nevertheless, some major trends may be found. First of all, English is
no more owned by its native speakers by now and even more in the
next future: British English is spoken by 4% of the whole English-
speaking community. More, the raising of new varieties (e.g. in India,
Singapore, Ghana) adds a local flavour in the vocabulary to express
national identities, thanks to the high degree of hybridism of the
language itself, finally giving the so-called 'New Englishes'. Although
English is usually linked with the colonial past, the complex language
map often makes it the only local common language suitable for
government needs. A question arise: will the rise of Englishes end in a
spread of mutually unintelligible varieties, as occurred with spoken
Latin? Crystal's answer is no, because global communication media,
considered as a great centripetal force, make varieties increasingly
similar. So, the linguistic prognosis of Crystal is a triglossia scenario:
an ethnic or ancestral language at home; a national language in one's
own country; an 'International Standard English' at international level --
i.e. an English variety derived from a polished mixture of British,
American and some local flavour. For example, in Wales the situation
will be: Welsh English, British Standard English, International Standard
English; in Northern Spain, it may be: Basque, Spanish, International
Standard English.

In the second Chapter, 'The Future of Languages', which actualizes
Crystal 2000, save the first section, the reader is introduced in the
theme of languages in danger and language death. For Crystal, the
strong hybridism in the English lexicon (e.g. the triplet kingly - royal -
regal, respectively borrowed from Germanic, French and Latin) shows
that human languages cannot be controlled. From the other side, it is
widely known the phenomenon of languages in danger: of about
6,000 languages in the world, most probably half of them will
disappear in the present century. More, according to Ethnologue,
about 5,000 has less than 100,000 speakers, and about 2,000, mostly
in Australia, had to be documented -- i.e. when the last speaker dies,
nothing remains of the language itself. Why languages die? The main
reason known in the literature are of three types: (1) natural disaster;
(2) cultural assimilation; (3) genocide. In the case of cultural
assimilation, perhaps the most interesting for linguists, Crystal points
out that not only English is a cause: also Spanish, Portuguese,
Russian, and Arabic, historically had similar roles. There are three
broad stages in decaying, regardless of the languages involved: in the
first stage, there is some social pressure to speak the dominant
language; in the second stage, there is an emerging bilingualism; in
the third stage, the dominant language eats one after the other the
contexts traditionally of the endangered language, and lastly it is no
more spoken in families. Often it is the second generation speakers,
freshly urbanized, who feel ashamed to speak the language of their
parents, and, when the third generation want to get back to their very
roots, it is too late: the language, not documented, is lost. Action of
linguists shall involve different strategies for revitalize endangered
languages, but primarily the community should get aware of the
danger of its own language. In every linguist agenda, maintaining
language diversity should be a priority: awareness of the danger,
documentation and education of the community itself are the acts to
be taken now. With a well-used ecological metaphor, as we take care
of the biodiversity of our planet, so we should take care of the
linguistic diversity: a strong ecosystem is a strong diverse, in both
fields. In the 1990s, the consciousness of the phenomenon got over
the boundaries of language specialists, especially in Europe and in
world government institutions as UNESCO. Now it should reach the
mainstream media to have a stronger social effort.

In the third Chapter, 'The Role of the Internet', which actualizes
Crystal 2001, the reader is introduced in the effects of the Internet
revolution on languages: the author argues that Internet manifested a
variety, called 'Netspeak', whose characteristics are pulled from oral
varieties in a written form (unlike the traditional model, where spoken
varieties are written down). Netspeak is used primarily in the Web, in
e-mails, in chatgroups. Until now, the rules how to communicate via e-
mail, how to socialize in chatgroups, and how to construct effective
Web pages are not taught in school, but soon it will. It should be
remembered, that a principle of modern language teaching is to get
the learners aware of linguistic responsibility and appropriateness,
depending of the context. Within English, the Netspeak variety seems
to elevate less controlled written varieties to the detriment of more
traditional formal varieties, especially in spelling and punctuation. After
some years of English-only domination in the 1990s, the Web actually
is increased mostly by languages other than English: the author guess
that about 1,500 languages have some presence in the Web.
Furthermore, Internet may help endangered languages: for example, it
can give publicity at almost no cost, and it may increase the sense of
language identity in case of speakers living away each other. From
the other side, Internet is mainly a written medium, consequently the
need of language documentation becomes even more important.

In the fourth Chapter, 'After the Revolution', Crystal discusses the
notion of bilingualism: it should be noted that learning a language
involve four modes - listening, speaking, reading and writing (deaf
signing may be a fifth under certain circumstances), so proficiency in a
language should be a four-dimensional space. Consequently, instead
of planning a language policy as 'L1 + 1/2', i.e. 'learn one-two foreign
language(s) in addition to your own', it is more effective to think in
terms of 'language portfolio', i.e. learning the language modes as you
really need in a multilingual context. For example, in the case o EU, it
is useless to translate everything in every official language, as they
remain unread, instead it is worthwhile to translate documents and
speeches according to their means: e.g. an EU document about
coastal defences will be of interest of certain country members, and
not others. On the community awareness level, purism should be
avoided, as it puts useless barriers between 'right' varieties
and 'wrong' varieties among the members of a given speech
community, with no advantage for any one. Indeed, funding to support
minority languages in general are very low compared to biodiversity,
for example. How to invert this trends? Crystal suggest four ways: the
media, the arts, the Internet, and the school curriculum. In particular,
the analysis of the arts as a medium fit to communicate the relevance
of language diversity and the theme of languages in danger should be
taken in account: the arts get into people's sensibility, communicating
not only awareness but also enthusiasm. Until now, there are few
stories told in music, dance, poetry, and theater which have as the
main topic languages in danger: linguists should collaborate with the
world of arts and media in order to get the topic more in the

In the fifth Chapter, 'Language Themes for the Twenty-First Century',
tries to note a practical agenda, to accomplish the
imperative "everyone, in an age of global communication, needs to be
language-aware". Crystal proposes, for example, to make language
museums for schools, and to write Christmas postcards with a wider
world language coverage, and so on. In the end, he proposes ten
main projects for the new millennium.


David Crystal dealing with globalization and languages is always an
interesting, idea-rich and provoking read. Compared with the previous
books (Crystal 1997, 2000, 2001) this one is less technical at the
language level: the author consciously avoids terms specific in
linguists, to reach a wider audience. About the main arguments of this
essay, I want to raise some questions. First of all, about the concept
of 'Englishes'. Especially in print, Englishes are very homogeneous,
and International Standard English has a considerable stable grammar
that acts as a centripetal force: I don't think speakers of Ghana or
Singapore feel English as a vehicle of national identity, but a vehicle of
an international, global one. On the other hand, it is also true that
Englishes' phonetics is everything save a standard. Henceforth, when
the author deals with the theme of languages in danger and language
death, my impression is that the profile is really too abstract,
compared with books on the same theme (e.g. Hagege 2001): the
linguicide role of the English language among many world languages
is a well-known position (e.g. in Phillipson 2003, and Tsunoda 2005);
as a reader, I should be aware of this position throughout the book,
and very interested in an answer by the author.

In my opinion the most intriguing chapters are the last ones -- but I am
an untypical reader, as I read the previous books on the same topic. I
can make sure that my students of Communication sciences are
taught about language registers in web pages, as others also can do
at other universities. By contrast, as educators we have to (re)teach
how to write a short essay, a paper and so on -- in short, texts. To put
it another way: students now know how to write down hypertexts, but
they are forgetting how to write down texts per se! Internet is a
globalizing medium, but it is also the case that high technology speaks
one language only: English. For example, every programming
language, is, in some way, a dialect of English. I agree with the author
that arts and media should get aware of biodiversity, and I think in the
last five years this is becoming more and more mainstream (see also
Message 2 at LINGUIST List 16.1441). But another question arises:
how may academics, as most linguists are, get in contact with media?
Usually, media, arts and academy are two (or three?) worlds not so in
contact one with the other. Even if, personally, I would be really
happy, linguists wanna be rock stars?


Crystal, D. (1997), English as a Global Language. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (2000), Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Crystal, D. (2001), Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Hagege, C. (2001), Halte à la mort des langues. Paris: Jacob.

Phillipson, R. (2003), English Only Europe? Challenging Language
Policy. London and New York: Routledge.

Tsunoda, T. (2005), Language Endangerment and Language
Revitalization. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.


Federico Gobbo is a Research Associate in the Department of
Communication and Computer Sciences, Insubria University in Varese,
Italy. His research interests lie in languages in contact, language
politics, language planning, language communication through IT,
computational linguistics, computer epistemology and computer ethics.

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