AUTHOR(S): Bauer, Laurie; Holmes, Janet; Warren, Paul
TITLE: Language Matters
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, Department of English Language and Literature,
National University of Singapore
As the pun in its title suggests, this book is about language matters, and
about why they matter. The 23 chapters, all ten pages long, address as many
questions about language use, structure and properties, commonly raised by
lay language users. The authors deftly integrate an impressively broad
range of everyday views about language into a soundly scholarly account of
issues that concern linguists, with the twin purpose of making readers
understand why, or why not, such issues make sense, and of encouraging them
to find answers on their own.
The book contains an introduction, a concluding chapter, a language index
and a general index, and is divided into four parts.
Part I, 'Origin and Development of Language', deals with the origin and
features of human language.
Chapter 1 gives a chronological survey of theories which have been proposed
to account for language phylogeny.
Chapter 2 introduces language variation and language change from a
sociolinguistic perspective, including geographical and dialectal variation.
Chapter 3 follows up on the theme of change, this time from a historical
perspective. The chapter highlights the commonality of ways in which
languages change across time, and makes clear the dissociation of facts of
change from judgements about linguistic improvement or linguistic
Chapter 4 looks at how similarities across languages allow their
classification into families, explaining issues and methods behind
Chapter 5 details the differences that are usually said to distinguish
human language from other animal communication systems. In particular, the
chapter surveys findings from experiments involving attempts to teach
human-like languages to higher primates.
Part II, 'Language Structures', is about how languages organise themselves.
Chapter 6 addresses issues of spelling-sound correspondence. The focus is
on English and on the many regularities of English spelling conventions,
including those that are taught in school. Drawing on the reasons behind
common misspellings among children as well as adults, such regularities are
shown first, to disprove popular claims of overall randomness in English
orthography, and then to assist in the spelling of 'difficult' words, if
followed consistently by spellers.
Chapter 7 deals with vocabulary from a quantitative perspective. The
discussion is about how to establish the lexical inventories of different
languages, given the well-known difficulty in defining the concept 'word'
itself in such a way as it might usefully apply not only within a single
language but also across several. The chapter shows how common assumptions
about lexically 'rich' or 'poor' languages are fraught with inconsistencies.
Chapter 8 turns to recursion and, more generally, to productivity and its
forms across languages. The recurrence of ''prefabricated chunks'' (p.87) of
language, consisting of idioms and routines, is treated together with the
inherent creativity in the use of language, in order to highlight their
similarities and differences. Specifically, the chapter clarifies the
striking asymmetry between formal accounts of recursion (what is allowed by
the grammar) and pragmatic language use (what speakers actually do, and do
not do, with their linguistic resources).
Chapter 9 deals with the complexity of language patterning, both structural
and lexical. The purpose is to dispel myths about so-called 'primitive'
languages, namely, their presumed inability to represent abstract concepts
(presumably found in 'advanced' languages) or to make use of presumably
Chapter 10 then shows how parsing works cross-linguistically, highlighting
the typical trade-off between syntactic and morphological complexity (viz.
inflection) in marking syntactic roles in different languages. The chapter
also deals with issues in the programming of machines to replicate human
language uses, contrasting the typically qualitative vs. quantitative
nature of human and mechanical processing power, respectively.
Chapter 11 relates parsing to linguistic predictability, dealing first with
(lexical and grammatical) words in context, and then with the functional
load of vowel and consonant letters. The chapter shows how, for example,
the typical short-hand of text messaging, or language games such as
Scrabble and crossword puzzles avail themselves of ''predictive texting''
(pp.114ff.), and provides plentiful illustration of redundancy in language,
as well as of users' (covert) awareness of it.
Part III, 'Language and Society', deals with language policies and language
Chapter 12 explains why language death, loss and revival concern linguists
and non-linguists alike, given the knowledge about the world and about the
human mind which is encoded in each and every language.
Chapter 13 addresses register and sociolinguistic norms, particularly how
the latter develop along the dimensions of communicative solidarity with,
and respect for, other human beings who share the same language.
Chapter 14 describes variation and accommodation in linguistic uses as a
reflection of personal or social identity, as it is perceived and/or
intended by interlocutors in specific communicative exchanges.
Chapter 15 chooses linguistic sexism to illustrate in greater detail a
number of points raised in the previous chapter. The examples and
discussion show how established linguistic categories embody (changing or
conservative) views about the social status attributed to the two sexes.
Chapter 16 turns to language contact, language choice and codeswitching,
both within a single language and across languages, according to domain of
use (e.g. home vs. school), highlighting the role of all three factors in
defining linguistic convergence and divergence.
Chapter 17 deals with language standardisation, particularly 'standard
English', 'native' and 'non-native' English. The typical human quest for
authority, leadership and sanction of practices is shown to be true in
matters of language use too, and reliant on as flimsy empirical support as
in other areas of human endeavour. The chapter also addresses the delicate
issues of attitudes towards different uses of language, showing their
consistent social basis, and of overt or covert discrimination because of
accent, drawing on examples from Britain.
Part IV, 'Language, Brain and Mind', turns to psycholinguistic matters.
Chapter 18 gives an overview of language acquisition, detailing features of
chronological stages in child language development and methods of
eliciting what we know about them.
Chapter 19 deals with bilingualism, and by extension with multilingualism,
to address related matters of cognition. The authors point out that most
research on these topics has been carried out by monolinguals, or by
scholars who otherwise insist on taking monolingual language uses as the
norm for comparisons, resulting in a paradoxically monolingual-based nature
of findings about multilingualism.
Chapter 20 turns to second language acquisition, and the ways in which it
differs from first language acquisition. The chapter surveys the
controversies that surround this field of research, including factors like
age, motivation, personality and social acceptance of foreign uses of
language, and shows how assessment, not use, continues to be the prime goal
of second language instruction.
Chapter 21 discusses slips of the tongue, particularly how they differ from
errors produced by second language learners, and what insight they afford
into the mental organisation and workings of human linguistic resources.
Chapter 22 deals with language and thought within and across languages,
duly noting the circular nature of the relationship between the two
constructs. The chapter surveys issues such as the strong and weak versions
of the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and the implications of
''codability'' i.e. ''how easy it is to describe a concept using language''
(p.238), for matters as diverse as false memories and advertising.
Chapter 23 surveys the theory and practice around different forms of
language loss and language impairment, particularly aphasia and dyslexia.
Discussion focuses on what language breakdown can reveal about unimpaired
uses of language, how language breakdown can be ascertained, and how it can
be remedied through therapy.
The Conclusion is organised around the twin issues of language description
and prescription. The chapter points out that most laymen's concerns about
language usually target judgemental matters like good usage, often invoking
arguments that lack empirical foundation, whereas linguists approach
language as factual observers, not as advisors.
All chapters follow the same layout, including the Introduction and
Conclusion. The first section, ''What's the Matter?'', introduces the issue
in question, developed in the body of the chapter in different headings and
subheadings. The concluding section, ''Where next?'', performs a double
function, featuring both a chapter summary and a call to action beyond what
the chapter offers, with practical suggestions on how to find more or
complementary information about issues raised in the chapter. Other matters
arising, as it were, are contemplated in the next section, ''Some Points to
Ponder''. This section offers food for thought, mostly in the shape of
exercises involving fieldwork, which include inviting the reader to
challenge analyses and conclusions proposed in the chapter. Other
suggestions of this kind appear along each chapter, adding a very welcome
and very sensible learning-in-progress feel to the whole book. The last
section in each chapter provides an annotated list of ''Readings and
References'', including online material, which complement, expand or contest
the views proposed in the chapter. Adding to the very reader-friendly
layout, all chapters contain boxes, with illustrations of particular points
in the text (e.g. parental language strategies in multilingual families),
explanations of terminology (e.g. pronoun) or a short biography of
personalities in linguistics (e.g. Saussure). Tables, with examples from
different languages, as well as several figures, further break the text
nicely, helping the reader systematise ideas.
Discussion focuses on comments about English gleaned among users for whom
this is the first, and often the sole language, although the book also
offers profuse examples in several other languages, all glossed and
translated into English. Examples taken from films, newspapers, books and
electronic chat-rooms resonate with our everyday encounters with language.
In addition, the appeal of informal chapter titles, e.g. ''Going On and On:
the Never-ending Story'' (Chapter 8) or ''What Shall I Call You?'' (Chapter
13) and the choice of an equally engaging use of the second person pronoun
to address the reader result in an extremely entertaining reading
experience. The style appropriately matches the book's intended lay
readership, featuring analogies taken from everyday life (e.g. pp.19, 104)
to explain features of language analysis or of language itself.
The book nevertheless assumes some knowledge about language,
language-related concepts and technical notation, gathered through
schooling or everyday experience in countries where English is the first
language. Examples are the use of terms like prefix and suffix (e.g.
Chapter 8), which are neither defined nor deemed specialised enough to
deserve inclusion in the index, the use of IPA script in phonetic
transcriptions of several examples, which is taken for granted, or the
connotations associated with the Brummie accent (Chapter 17, dealing with
attitudes towards language uses, is titled ''Why Can't people in Birmingham
In many ways, this book reminds of Bauer & Trudgill (1998), with which it
shares presentation method, style and purpose. Here too the authors show
deep understanding of what the public worries about, as well as deep
scholarship and clear-headedness in deconstructing several assumptions
underlying common misunderstandings about language. The book reaches out to
the reader in other ways too. On the one hand, it raises awareness about
our implicit knowledge of language matters, e.g. that ''[s]electing a term
of address or reference involves making sociolinguistic judgements about
the kind of relationship we have with others'' (p.136). On the other hand,
the authors make it clear that linguists themselves are not immune to
preconception or fallacious reasoning about their object of study, e.g. the
observation that linguists take a descriptive, not prescriptive, approach
to language ''at least when they are in their offices or talking to the
media, rather than in their homes or talking to their children'' (p.102).
Prejudice and analytical inaccuracies are shown to arise from lack of
adequate information, among laymen and linguists alike. Generalising from
the authors' observation about 'primitive' languages, ''such claims are more
likely to be the result of ignorance on the part of the person making the
The authors competently weave together linguistic theory and practice, by
stating problematic issues, explaining controversies and facilitating
intellectual and bibliographic tools to entice readers into finding out
more by themselves, knowing what to look for and why. In this sense, this
not so much a book to study, as a book to study from. The book constitutes
a refreshingly didactic appetizer, as it were, to the linguistics main
course beyond it.
Bauer, Laurie and Peter Trudgill, Eds. (1998). Language Myths. London: Penguin.