Making Language Crystal Clear

Professor David Crystal is widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s leading linguistic authorities.  It is a treat to listen to him speak about language, and you can get a flavor of his presentation style in this YouTube video on myths and realities surrounding texts and tweets.

It is an even greater treat to read Professor Crystal’s thoughts on language, something that I did again in preparation for a talk to Residents about Skeffington’s “orphan” speech-language circle.  That took me back to a blog six years ago in which I touched upon Crystal’s monumental work as detailed in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language.


It is still delightful to open Chapter 34 of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language authored Professor Crystal, which addresses the The process of reading and writing, and and see a picture of the eye prominently featured.


Crystal follows his introduction of the role of eye movements in reading with a discussion on the theories of how we read.  He begins as follows:

“Following a fixation during reading, a visual pattern of graphic features is conveyed to the retina, and then transmitted via the optic nerve for interpretation by the brain.  The stages involved in this process are not well understood, and several different theories have been proposed to explain what happens when fluent readers read … Nor are experimental situations necessarily convincing, because they make readers do abnormal things.  And analysing the behaviour of people with reading difficulties may produce results that do not apply to competent readers … ‘Reading’ in all of this does not mean simply ‘reading aloud’, which might be done by a suitably equipped automatic machine that would not know what it is saying.  ‘Reading’ crucially involves appreciating the sense of what is written: we read for meaning.  It is this link – between graphology and semantics – that has to be explained by any theory of reading.

The arguments about whether we read more by ear or by eye, alternatively viewed as the “phonics” versus “sight word” debate, constitute the remainder of this chapter.  The considerations are rather lengthy, so we’ll continue the discussion about theories of reading in Part 2.

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