The Many Delights of Language
David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Cambridge University Press, issued at special Indian price in 1994 at Rs. 525, pp. 472.
Language is unique among human achievements for it captures all of human thought and endeavour in the enormous diversity of the world's languages and the great range, complexity and beauty of expression encountered not only in the most refined and respected literatures, but even in the most routine exchanges of daily conversation. Therefore, any single volume encyclopedia of language presents a great challenge and will inevitably be marked by areas of silence. Since the present work is focused on English in interaction largely, though not exclusively, with other European languages, it faces a more specific handicap in the Indian context.
However, having stated this, one cannot but commend the manner in which the encyclopedia's definitional, structural and analytical core is sufficiently generalised and supported by a multitude of enriching insights and illustrations drawn from a wide range of languages, cultures and societies, so that its relevance, and ability to sustain reader interest, extends much beyond the area of focus. Further, the fact that the work is founded on the "belief that the systematic analysis and discussion of language in an objective way is an essential step forward towards any world in which mutual respect and tolerance is a reality" and that "people have language rights which should not be neglected", makes it of special interest to discerning Indian readers who are unfortunate witness to an increasing social and intellectual intolerance, of which tensions generated by linguistic arrogance and exclusiveness constitute no small part.
All languages are essentially symbolisms, whose meaning and use is defined by formal and informal 'grammars', and is expressive both of universal and culture-specific functions. Thus there are no 'stone-age' languages, nor are the myths about the 'natural superiority', whether of classical or other languages, sustainable. However, at the same time, it must be recognised that the socle-historical and regional requirements of users of particular languages are reflected in the
Social Scientist, Vol. 22, Nos. 9-12, September-December 1994