AUTHOR: Aitchison, Jean
TITLE: The Word Weavers
SUBTITLE: Newshounds and Wordsmiths
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
Lee B. Abraham, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Villanova University
_The Word Weavers: Newshounds and Wordsmiths_ examines the origins and
development of contemporary English-language journalistic discourse. Centuries
of oral narrative traditions left an indelible mark on modern journalism and
literature. Aitchison traces the influence of these oral ancestors on
journalistic language as well as changes in newspaper discourse and reporting.
The volume identifies similarities and differences in conventions and linguistic
patterns shaped by English-language journalists (newshounds) and literary
writers (wordsmiths). Aitchison also explores the historic rivalry between
newshounds and wordsmiths, observing that ''journalism needs to be more widely
recognized as both valuable and highly skilled'' (p. 214).
In Chapter One, ''Weaving and worrying: Journalism versus literature?'' Aitchison
focuses on contemporary and historical critiques of English-language journalism
as well as the praise for literary writing. The chapter briefly contrasts human
and animal language and includes a discussion of humans' ability to select and
combine (weave) words into new patterns, thereby introducing readers to the
focus of Aitchison's volume: a study of the linguistic patterns, conventions,
and devices characterizing journalistic and literary discourse.
In Chapter Two, ''Singers of tales: Oral narrative'', Aitchison analyzes oral
narratives of the ancient Greek epics, the Illiad and the Odyssey asserting that
these may be the predecessors of contemporary journalism. Aitchison draws on
evidence of the influence of ancient oral traditions on literary works in a
section discussing a 19th century collection of English and Scottish ballads
Chapter Three, ''The tongue of the hand: Speech and writing'', considers the
development of written language from early writing systems to contemporary
alphabets. Aitchison reviews the recent arguments in favor of the simplification
of the English spelling system and briefly discusses the influence of mobile
phone text messaging and e-mail messages on writing. The chapter then identifies
differences in spoken and written language and also points out that certain
types of discourse such as e-mail messages, television programs, and news
reports share features of both oral and written discourse (Biber, 1988).
Chapter Four, ''Hangings, histories, marvels, mysteries: The birth of
journalism'', describes the first two centuries of news writing in England
beginning in the late 15th century with the invention of the printing press
(1476) and the advent of one-page printed adaptations of oral narratives known
as broadsheet (broadside) ballads. These broadsheets included heroic tales and
traditional ballads, such as those later compiled by Child (1882-1898) and
discussed previously in Chapter Two, old scandals, crime reports, and other news
items. Co-existing with broadsheets and including similar content, chapbooks
(1550-1770) were pamphlets of four to twenty-four pages some of which were
devoted to specific topics such as medicine or religion. Published every few
days, the newsbooks of the mid-17th century are considered to be the first
''true'' newspaper because of their accounts of current events, particularly those
associated with the civil war in England that began in 1642. Chapter Four also
examines the origin and evolution of the word ''news'' and includes a content
analysis of newsbooks.
Chapter Five, ''Calendars of roguery and woe: Daily newspapers'', chronicles the
rise of daily newspapers in England from the18th century through the present.
Aitchison outlines the reasons for selecting and publishing news articles by
looking at the concept of newsworthiness in the work of Galtung and Ruge (1965).
The chapter concludes by noting the increasing prevalence of gossip in
newspapers and demonstrates that contemporary news readers' desire for gossip
has a long tradition in newspapers in England beginning with the late 18th century.
Chapter Six, ''Story-telling: Narrating the news'', examines the structure and
organization of modern news stories. Aitchison draws on Bell's (1991) model to
explain how articles generally begin with a concise summary followed by
additional details and an evaluation. The chapter also considers variations of
news story structure such as the focus style which chronicles an individual or a
situation in order to highlight a newsworthy problem. Aitchison concludes the
chapter with an analysis of the language of newspaper reports and the World Wide
Web concerning the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings on September
11, 2001 in New York City.
Chapter Seven, ''Glimmering words: Boiling down and polishing'', looks at the
guidelines and conventions followed by journalists. According to Aitchison,
journalists attract and maintain readers' interest by writing vivid,
user-friendly accounts consisting of brief sections of narrative, direct quotes,
and adverbs expressing time (e.g., minutes later, shortly after 10:00 a.m.).
Aitchison then presents evidence of a trend toward using clear and compact
writing styles by examining linguistic patterns of newspaper headlines in the
mid-19th and 20th centuries. The chapter discusses similarities and differences
between advertisements and newspaper headlines. Advertisements use a variety of
devices such as rhymes and repetition which are not prevalent in news headlines.
Both are designed to attract readers' attention but newspapers publish headlines
based upon predictable linguistic formula to make certain that readers
Chapter Eight, ''Painting with words: Imaginative creativity'', compares and
contrasts patterns in journalistic writing and poetry. Aitchison reviews the
rhythmic and metrical patterns in English-language poetry and then describes the
ways in which poets construct their work by creatively combining words imitating
the sounds they denote (buzz, clip-clop, tick-tock) with an innovative selection
of synonyms and antonyms.
Chapter Nine, ''Two ideas for one: Exploring metaphor'', surveys the origin of
metaphor and explores reasons for using metaphors in English-language poetry and
newspapers. Poetic metaphors are successful when they are unexpected and invoke
multiple and limitless interpretations and images in readers. Metaphors in
journalistic discourse are easy to understand, explain complex ideas, get and
maintain readers' attention, and make ordinary news events more vivid. Aitchison
also briefly discusses the use of metaphors in political discourse.
Chapter Ten, ''The role of journalism: Evaluating the views'', reviews positive
and negative attitudes toward journalism and observes that journalistic
discourse is often mistakenly evaluated by literary conventions. The chapter
also looks at selection and editing processes of news stories and discusses
recent cases of journalists engaged in plagiarism and writing false news
accounts. Aitchison suggests that contemporary journalism plays an important
role in creating and maintaining shared values and concludes the chapter by
predicting that newspapers will always be a complex combination of news and
The strength of the volume is the eloquent analysis of an impressive wealth of
literary and journalistic discourse revealing the previously unknown but
significant influences of ancient oral narratives on contemporary
English-language journalism. The scope of the volume, one that is both a history
of journalism and also a fascinating linguistic and content analysis of English
literary works and newspapers, may leave the reader with a desire for additional
information and, as such, the volume's extensive notes provide ample
supplementary reference works.
_The Word Weavers_ lays an important foundation for future analyses of
journalistic discourse in other languages and complements the recent work by the
author (Aitchison & Lewis, 2003). It is an engaging and superbly-documented
volume that is essential reading for scholars interested in the language of the
media, particularly, those with interests in the origins, evolution, and current
state of journalism or the analysis of English-language news discourse.
Aitchison, J., & Lewis, D.M. Eds.. 2003. _New media language_. London: Routledge.
Bell, A. 1991. _The language of news media_. Oxford: Blackwell.
Biber, D. 1988. _Variation across speech and writing_. Cambridge: Cambridge
Child, F. J . Ed.. 1882-1898. _The English and Scottish popular ballads_. Vols.
New York: Dover.
Galtung, J., & Ruge, M. H. 1965. The structure of foreign news: The presentation
Congo, Cuba and Cyprus crises in four Norwegian newspapers. _Journal of Peace
Research_, 2, 1, 64-91.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Lee B. Abraham is Assistant Professor of Spanish at Villanova University where
he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in linguistics and instructional
technologies. Professor Abraham's research focuses on the analysis of spoken,
written, and electronic discourse as well as sociocognitive approaches to second
language reading, writing, and vocabulary learning.