Book Review: Language Revolution

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 12 15:22:33 UTC 2005

Forwarded from Linguist-List LINGUIST List 16.1500

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

Reviewed by 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
dj 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

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  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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