Somehow I don't seem to understand this quote.

“Language has no independent existence apart from the people who use it. It is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end of understanding who you are and what society is like.” — David Crystal

I specifically don't understand the first line. It makes no sense to me. I'm thinking that it means that 'language doesn't exist independently, it is dependent except to the people who use it.'
I know I am wrong. I got the gist of the next lines. I searched the web but it only shows the quote itself or doesn't explain enough to me.
Can anyone please thoroughly explain the first line? I wouldn't mind the complete explaination, though.

  • 4
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about philosophy/ontology, rather than learning the English language. In Crystal's context, language is a bit like money, or beauty (concepts/things that only really "exist" because people agree on what they are; they have no "objective, independent" existence). Mar 29, 2017 at 14:13
  • @FumbleFingers Apologies! I had no idea it could have a philosophical meaning to it. But I have satisfied myself with the grammatical one for now. Makes much more sense to me
    – Nikki
    Mar 29, 2017 at 15:03
  • I've absolutely no idea what you mean by that. If you could explain to me how this question (or your apparent satisfaction with i/Bug's answer) relates to matters of grammar, I might cancel my closevote. Mar 29, 2017 at 15:07
  • @FumbleFingers The way the sentence was written somehow got me confused with the use of apart. I couldn't understand the line so I thought under the meaning-in-context tag, I can post for an answer. Did I not follow the rules?
    – Nikki
    Mar 29, 2017 at 15:34
  • Do you mean you didn't understand that apart from can be used to mean except? In your context, the meaning is that a language doesn't really "exist" except in [coexistence with] the people who use that language. That's to say even the existence of a language at all (plus of course the specific form it takes) is entirely dependent on there being people who speak it. If that's the case I still think you could have looked up define apart from, but I doubt you broke any "rules"". Mar 29, 2017 at 16:34

3 Answers 3


To understand a complex sentence:

  • Cut off clauses and adverbials so that only the main sentence is left.
  • Figure out the subject, predicate and object.
  • Add the clauses and adverbials back one by one.

Following the procedure given above:
From the first 2 steps, it yields

Language has no independent existence,

Add the "apart from" back and re-arrange the sentence, now it reads

Apart from the people who use it, language has no independent existence.

Where "apart from" has the meaning of "if separated from / without" and "has no independent existence" can be interpreted as "can't exist independently". So overall, that sentence means

Without people who use it, language cannot exist.
If there are no people who use it, language cannot exist.

Here "independent" can be omitted as it has exactly the same meaning as the adverbial clause.


It seems you are confused about the phrase "apart from". While this is most often used in the same way as "except for", here the word "apart" is being used to mean "separated". The meaning of the sentence is therefore:

Language has no independent existence separated from the people who use it.


The sentence is a little esoteric (meaning that it takes on an abstract or mystical topic). What the author is trying to relate, if I understand it correctly, is that languages don't occur in a vacuum. David Crystal is a linguist and it seems that he's probably making a point about English in usage.

I believe what he is trying to relate is that language and it's usage are dictated by the people using it. It is probably meant as a refutation to linguistic purists (think of someone insulting another person for using church Latin instead of Cicero's).

The point being made here is that language that is not used (archaic) doesn't rightfully belong to language and that things that seem incorrect but are common do belong within a language. For instance, "thrice" means three times but is archaic. If you said, "I went to the beach three times" and I said, "I went to the beach thrice", David Crystal would probably assert that you are correct.

I hope this helps,


  • ''...language that is not used (archaic) doesn't rightfully belong to language...'' I like your answer too. It is quite relevant to the topic from where I got the quote. Thanks. I would upvote you.
    – Nikki
    Mar 29, 2017 at 15:14

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