In his preface to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal offers six good reasons for studying the English language.
Some books about the English language are cleverly written--playful, humorous, and all too often littered with inaccuracies. At the other end of the shelf are the formal linguistic studies--heavily footnoted, agonizingly precise, and generally painful to read.
And then there are David Crystal's books (over 100 of them at last count), which manage to be both scholarly and eminently readable. An honorary professor and part-time lecturer of linguistics at Bangor University in Wales, Crystal has been conducting research in language studies since the early 1960s. Throughout this Grammar & Composition website, you'll find references to several of his recent works, including English as a Global Language (2003), The Stories of English (2004), How Language Works (2005), and The Fight for English (2006).
But Crystal's greatest achievement, and the one book about language that all students and linguaphiles should own, is The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2003), described by a reviewer as "the most diverting, delightful, imaginative and altogether entertaining compilation ever assembled about spoken and written English." Here you'll learn about dactyls and dialects, flyting and rhyming, language change, language delay, language shift, and language loyalty. Students agree that phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics have never been this much fun.
In his preface to The Cambridge Encyclopedia, Crystal examines the question, "Why study the English language?" See if you can come up with any answers that are better than these.
- Because it's fascinating
It is remarkable how often the language turns up as a topic of interest in daily conversation--whether it is a question about accents and dialects, a comment about usage and standards, or simply curiosity about a word's origins and history.
- Because it's important
The dominant role of English as a world language forces it upon our attention in a way that no language has ever done before. As English becomes the chief means of communication between nations, it is crucial to ensure that it is taught accurately and efficiently, and to study changes in its structure and use.
- Because it's fun
One of the most popular leisure pursuits is to play with the English language--with its words, sounds, spellings, and structures. Crosswords, Scrabble®, media word shows, and many other quizzes and guessing games keep millions happily occupied every day, teasing their linguistic brain centres and sending them running to their dictionaries.
- Because it's beautiful
Each language has its unique beauty and power, as seen to best effect in the works of its great orators and writers. We can see the 1,000-year-old history of English writing only through the glass of language, and anything we learn about English as a language can serve to increase our appreciation of its oratory and literature.
- Because it's useful Getting the language right is a major issue in almost every corner of society. No one wants to be accused of ambiguity and obscurity, or find themselves talking or writing at cross-purposes. The more we know about the language the more chance we shall have of success, whether we are advertisers, politicians, priests, journalists, doctors, lawyers--or just ordinary people at home, trying to understand and be understood.
- Because it's there
English, more than any other language, has attracted the interest of professional linguists. It has been analysed in dozens of different ways, as part of the linguist's aim of devising a theory about the nature of language in general. The study of the English language, in this way, becomes a branch of linguistics--English linguistics.
To learn more about David Crystal and his books on language, visit davidcrystal.com.
See also: Why Should We Study English Grammar?