LINGUIST List 12.2134

Thu Aug 30 2001

Review: Handbook of Linguistics, part 2

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <terrylinguistlist.org>


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  1. Radu Daniliuc, The Handbook of Linguistics

Message 1: The Handbook of Linguistics

Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2001 09:24:44 +1000
From: Radu Daniliuc <radu.daniliucanu.edu.au>
Subject: The Handbook of Linguistics

[This is a continuation of the review in
http://linguistlist.org/issues/12/12.1875.html,
adding a critical evaluation of some of the chapters in the book. --Eds.]

Aronoff, Mark, and Janie Rees-Miller, eds. The Handbook of Linguistics.
Blackwell Publishers, hardback ISBN 0-631-20497-0, $125.00, 840pp,
Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics

Reviewed by Laura and Radu Daniliuc, School of Modern Languages and
Linguistics, The Australian National University

As mentioned in the first part our first review, the 32 original
articles in this volume provide a wide-ranging and helpful reference
for a variety of linguistic (and not only) areas, providing a broad yet
detailed picture of what is known about language at the beginning of the
twenty-first century.

Due to the large number of pages and to the amount of information
contained in the volume, it would be a pity, and in the mean time an
injustice, not to mention all the articles and their authors, as all of
them can be used separately as short, but comprehensive, introductions to
different linguistic fields. Our first review offered an overall
presentation of the volume and synthesized the content of all articles.
We had always had in mind the idea that the value of the volume, and this
volume is indeed of remarkable value, is given by all articles, by the
contribution of all authors. This is reason why we adopted that style of
review. What follows is the review of only three articles, chosen
according to our linguistic interests. We strongly believe that all
articles deserve the same treatment, but this time our task as reviewers
is to point to the importance of the book by paying attention to a
strictly limited number of articles. What we have done is definitely not
a selection of the best articles, but a purely subjective choice of the
topics we prefer from the fascinating domain of linguistics. We have
chosen Chapter 3, on writing systems, Chapter 5, on historical
linguistics, and Chapter 11, on syntax.

Starting from the idea that all writing is phonologically based, Peter T.
Daniels (Independent scholar, one of the editors of "The
World's Writing Systems") offers a very interesting
historical-descriptive survey of the world's writing systems and
comments on the theoretical aspects of writing systems from the
perspective that writing is not like language, first of all for
biological reasons. He begins by describing the six types of writing
systems in the order they came into being, from old world
logosyllabaries, such as the Mesopotamian cuneiform and the Egyptian
hieroglyphs, to the logosyllabaries of the New World and the syllabaries
of the modern world, such as the Maya hieroglyphs and the Cherokee
syllabary. Daniel disagrees with the view that there are three types of
writing systems and he argues for a sexpartite typology. He also
identifies five differences between the designed writing of language and
the evolved speaking of language. Daniels' view on the origin of
writing (and on the types of writing systems) comes from the ideas that
the Phoenician script does not explicitly denote syllables and that the
primacy of the syllable is the key to the history of writing. Another
original idea is the presupposition that the author of writing must have
been left-handed as the earliest writing systems were right-to-left.
Daniels makes very interesting comments on script direction and
transmission, on letter order, letter names, and writing materials. This
breath-taking chapter ends with a concise presentation of the branches of
scholarship that have studied writing systems.

After Campbell's brief survey of the history of linguistics, Brian
D. Joseph (Ohio State University) brings to our attention different
aspects of historical linguistics, such as the reasons, types and
mechanisms of language change and language history, pointing out to some
of the methods used by historical linguists in their investigations.
Though historical linguistics is not anymore in the center of
linguistics, it is still the study of both language change and language
history and it will always be a basic component of linguistic studies as
change is a continuing force in language and as virtually all aspects of
a language are subject to change. This amazing itinerary through
historical linguistics begins with the explanation of the five key
questions identified by Weinreich et al. 1968 as the problems that a
theory of change must solve: constraints, transition, embedding,
evaluation, and actuation. With a lot of examples, Joseph also describes
the types of change and spread, pointing to the matter of recurrence of
innovations. Looking at the ways change is manifested in language, he
makes the inventory of the accounts on language change in terms of
different theoretical frameworks. Exploring the underlying causes of
language change, Joseph identifies four main factors that may determine
language change, factors corresponding to different facets of language:
psychological, physiological, systemic, and social. Referring to the
social factor of sustained language contact, Joseph quotes from a Slovene
linguist from the early 19th century that Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek,
Macedonian, and Romanian have come to be "syntactically quite
parallel to each other". We believe that grouping languages from
different families according to their syntax is quite difficult and
proves to be very tricky. To the best of our knowledge, the syntax of
Romanian is not at all parallel to that of the languages mentioned above
(which we are not very sure that follow the same syntactic pattern). The
chapter ends with the open question of the possibility of a general
theory of change.

Trying to explain the differences and similarities between formal syntax
and functional syntax, Mark C. Baker (Rutgers University) teaches us
basic lessons of syntactic research and gives a concrete example for
universal grammar and parameterization. He begins his presentation with
an overview of the domain of syntax and the other linguistic branches
closely related to syntax. Baker's account proves to be a rather
diachronic one, as it mainly focuses on Chomskyan syntax, which has
flourished since the 1950's, pointing to the most important aspects
that make Chomsky's contribution to syntax so great and to the
substantive discoveries that have made syntax progress so much. After
pointing to the fact (revealed by several decades of syntactic research)
that syntax is so vast a topic, Baker concentrates on the constraints
that are central to syntax and on the large component of syntax that is
common to all human languages, and he brings evidence from English and
Edo, a language spoken in Nigeria. A more radical comparison between
English and the Mohawk language is intended as an illustration of some
distinctive traits of contemporary syntactic research and as a practical
explanation of what Universal Grammar means. These comparisons also
picture the similarity, and not only the vastness of the syntax of
natural languages. This chapter is naturally followed by one on
generative grammar, written by Thomas Wasow.

All the 32 original articles in this volume provide a comprehensive and
supportive reference for a diversity of linguistic (and not only) areas,
providing an extensive yet detailed image of what is known about language
at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The greatest advantage of
this book is that it addresses general readers, students of linguistics
and specialists in linguistic sub-disciplines and it points for the most
part to the large and emergent areas of general interest and significance
of this intriguing domain.

Mention should be made again that the value of this authoritative volume
is given by the value of the articles it contains and, therefore, it is
unjust not to mention them all. This is what we did in our first review
of this volume, where we pointed out that all the articles surprise by
their accuracy and meticulous organization and that the authors succeeded
in gathering the largest amount of essential information within the space
they were restricted by. We have been told that we praised the book too
much. But we believe that taking into consideration the aims of the
editors and the public they had in view, this book is a remarkable
achievement.

[Biographical statement in previous part.]
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