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Review of  The Handbook of English Linguistics

Reviewer: Michael D Moss
Book Title: The Handbook of English Linguistics
Book Author: Bas Aarts April McMahon
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 19.335

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EDITORS: Aarts, Bas; McMahon, April
TITLE: The Handbook of English Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing
YEAR: 2006

Reviewer: Michael Moss, PhD, University of Gdansk

Just a glance at the table of contents will tell the potential reader that this
volume presents a comprehensive range of articles written by a very solid group
of contributors. The volume is arranged into five parts, each dealing with a
main area of research in 'English Linguistics'. The name itself is intriguing
because it creates a field within a field. The volume editors define English
Linguistics as ''a discipline that concerns itself with the study of all aspects
of Present-Day English (PDE) from a variety of different angles, both
descriptive and theoretical, but with a methodological outlook firmly based on
the working practices developed in modern contemporary linguistics'' (p. 1).

This is the second review of this book to appear on LINGUIST List. I will not
repeat the information presented by Dr. McIntyre
(, who provides a short summary of
each chapter. I will provide a detailed summary of one chapter from each of the
five Parts to give the reader an idea of what can be found in the book.

Part I Methodology
Chapter 2 Description and Theory, Kersti Börjars
This chapter takes us through a brief description of theoretical approaches to
linguistic descriptions of the English language. The author reflects on the
problems of prescription versus description and variation in personal judgment,
which influence how grammars are written. She notes that corpus based studies
have become more popular over the last few years in response to such problems.
Corpus based research, however, also has problems. Since many corpora are based
on written language in the standard dialect, studies which are based on such
data are also limited in their ability to describe the language by the limits of
the contents of the corpora.

The author also discusses the problem of trying to differentiate descriptions of
linguistic phenomena from theories which aim to explain them. When describing
data we also want to be able to say why certain structures and phenomena appear,
or at least predict whether a structure will be acceptable in a given language.
As she points out: ''every description that is not just a list of actually
occurring sounds or phrases involves some degree of abstraction, so that for
instance as soon as we refer to a unit such as a 'phoneme' or a 'verb phrase,'
we are abstracting away from the pure data'' (p. 11).

Three theories of language are described in the article: Minimalism,
Lexical-Functional Grammar and Optimality Theory. Each of the descriptions is
concise and informative. The author discusses the main issues associated with
each theory such as presence or absence of movement, the importance of lexical
sub-categorization and so on. She also makes the very important observation that
OT is not a theory but a meta-theory, meaning that both MP and LFG can be used
with OT to create MP-OT or LFG-OT analyses.

The article covers a wide range of material in a short space and has a good
bibliography to indicate where the interested student or scholar might look for
more detailed and fuller descriptions and theories.

Part II Syntax
Chapter 6 English Word Classes and Phrases, Bas Aarts and Liliane Haegeman
This chapter deals with a very important issue: word class and phrase are
interdependent ideas. Formal linguistics often finds it desirable to create
limited numbers of strict word classes into which all words must fit. Cognitive
linguists abandon this idea and propose that words are arranged in clines or
gradients, along which item x is more or less prototypical of a particular class
than item y. The authors of this article propose a third choice which is a
compromise between the two opposing choices. The proposal is made due to the
observation that while the Aristotelian system adopted by the formal linguist is
appealing, it is also easy to find examples of words which have features which
are shared between two different classes such as Noun and Verb. The compromise
proposes to keep the boundaries between lexical categories such as noun and
verb, but to say that there are 'mixed' elements in which the weight of verbal
features outweighs the nominal ones and vice versa.

Because the authors adopt a 'hybrid' model which still retains the distinction
noun and verb, they are able to explain how words are organized into Noun
Phrases and Verb Phrases and ultimately into sentences, without loosing the fact
that some words are more or less like the class that they belong to.

The rest of the article focuses on the problem of how to deal with auxiliaries
in a structural representation of English clauses. The text introduces the
reader to the idea that a clause is more than just a Noun Phrase and a Verb
Phrase. The discussion concludes that all sentences need to have an Inflection
Phrase, in order to express tense and agreement even if an auxiliary is not present

Part III Phonetics and Phonology
Chapter 17 English Phonology and Morphology, Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero and April
As the title indicates, the article investigates the interconnections between
phonology and morphology in English, and tries to determine to what degree the
two topics should/can be studied in isolation. The authors present a full
overview of the topic including all of the main contributions from Chomsky and
Halle (1968) to the currently popular Optimality Theory approaches.

The authors skillfully take the reader through an analysis of how the different
theories analyze the interaction of phonology and morphology. They show how each
of the approaches deals with the problems of levels or stages of word and phrase
construction which seem to require the presence or absence of phonological

The article concludes that an analysis of the various approaches shows that,
while we may not have the final answer progress is being made and interesting
discoveries are being uncovered.

Part IV Lexis and Morphology
Chapter 20 English Words, Donka Minkova and Bob Stockwell
The authors of the article have also published an entire book on the same topic
(which is not mentioned in the bibliography). It was interesting to compare the
book with the article as I read it. While the book is able to go into much more
detail and certainly gives the reader more data and more information about
morphology in English.

The article starts out by asking how many words there are in English. This leads
nicely to a discussion of 'core' and 'periphery' and layering in the lexicon.

Borrowing is, of course, a central topic when discussing English vocabulary.
This article gives a very nice breakdown of English borrowings, where they come
from, how they are identified and when they are likely to have entered the language.

After the introductory sections, we are provided with an overview of how these
borrowings influenced the language. The final section discusses borrowings in
the second half of the twentieth century.

Part V Variation, Discourse, Stylistics, and Usage
Chapter 26 Syntactic Variation in English: A Global Perspective, Bernd Kortmann
This piece represents a strong current which runs throughout the book, namely,
corpus based linguistic analysis. It is an important article because the amount
of information that has been analyzed about syntactic variation is quite small
when compared to other fields such as phonology. Furthermore, it is an attempt
to look at syntactic variation on a ''global scale'' and not within one of the
standard varieties. As the author says, this is an exciting time because ''for
the first time, it will soon be possible to systematically explore syntactic
variation across (regional or social) non-standard varieties in, and ultimately
even across, different parts of the English-speaking world …'' (p. 604).

After a discussion of the methodology and the state of the field today, a large
part of the article is dedicated to a presentation of the data, which is largely
taken from Kortmann et al. (2004). The data include examples of variation in
noun and verb phrases, negation, agreement, and subordination (sections 2-6).
The sections on noun and verb phrases include information about pronouns,
nominal inflection, comparative adjectives, tense and aspect, modals, verbal
morphology and adverbs. Finally we have a discussion of the patterns and
tendencies that can be seen in the data.

Language change can basically be seen as today's non-standard forms changing
into standard forms. For this reason, this section is exciting because it takes
the data presented earlier and tries to forecast which of the current syntactic
non-standard forms will become tomorrow's standard. Kortmann's data indicate
that the forms that stand the greatest chance of becoming standard in the future
are those which are globally present, such as 'that' as a relativizer, the
non-reflexive use of 'myself', the development of the progressive into an
imperfective, supraregional forms (e.g., invariant 'isn't it' and 'innit'), and
marked word order in double object constructions (give me it, please). Kortman
makes this claim because these forms have not been stigmatized. Whereas, such
forms as: 'ain't' or copula deletion have been heavily stigmatized and are thus
consciously recognized as non-standard forms.

Furthermore, the data indicate that the non-standard forms globally (across
varieties) exhibit a larger degree of regularity than the standard forms of
English. Examples of this kind of regularity include the leveling of irregular
verb forms (using 'has' in all persons), the use of one reflexive form
regardless of number (hisself, theirself), and others.

Finally, Kortmann discusses the issue of Standard vs. Non-Standard English from
a typological point of view. He presents an argument whereby English should,
perhaps, be treated differently than it currently is in terms of typological
distinction. Typological studies, he argues, use the Standard form of English to
identify and place the language, which produces inaccurate results when
Non-Standard forms are taken into consideration. For instance, Kortmann points
out that English is usually referred to as a language in which subject-verb
agreement strictly adheres. This is true only if the Standard variety is taken
to represent the language. Non-Standard varieties show a ''pervasive loss of
subject-verb agreement'' (p. 618). If this is the case, then English would come
under a different categorization depending on which variety (Standard or
Non-Standard) one chose for the purpose.

With so many topics to cover, each chapter is restricted in the depth that it
can investigate. As a handbook, however, we should not expect that each topic be
presented in full. Rather, we should hope to find the main problems and
solutions being investigated and tested and references to the bodies of
literature that have developed. For the most part, this is exactly what we find.

Recognizing the limitations of size and time which are always a problem when
putting together a handbook, but particularly one with the ambitions mentioned
above, this book does a very good job. Covering every topic that one might
include under the term 'English Linguistics' is a mammoth task. Whatever topics
you decide to include in such a volume, the list will always be incomplete from
some point of view. However, the range of articles in the book give a well
balanced feeling for the state of the field of study today.

Furthermore, all of the articles are well written and try and present a
non-theory-specific point of view. Sometimes this results in an article seeming
to be a bit too general or even slightly out of date. For example, it is
unfortunate that in Chapter 6 (discussed above) Bas and Haegeman couldn't give a
deeper discussion of Inflectional Phrases, and that they do not point out some
of the major areas of research, such as Baker's (2003) detailed discussion of
lexical categories or Cinque's (1999) discussion of lexical and functional
categories. In defense, however, one should keep in mind that a handbook of this
type does not have to present the newest cutting edge technology, but should aim
to show the reader what problems are being investigated and what the trends in
that area are. All in all, I feel that the volume does a good job of balancing
the 'new and exciting' with the 'well accepted' solutions to various questions
being researched.

Finally, as a handbook, the volume contains much material that would be very
suitable for students to read as introductory texts. The articles would be
useful in Introduction to Linguistics courses, or in BA thesis seminars, to
expose the students to topics that might not be covered in a standard textbook.
I think the volume will also be attractive to a wide range of academic teachers.
We cannot specialize in everything, but the articles in this volume will give
the reader access to the main ideas being investigated in the individual
sub-fields of ''English Linguistics''.

Baker, M.C., 2003. _Lexical Categories: Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives_. Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge.

Cinque, Guglielmo, 1999. _Adverbs and Functional Heads: A Cross-Linguistic
Perspective_. Oxford University Press, New York.

Kortmann, B., Burridge, K., Mesthrie, R., and Schneider, E. (eds.), 2004. _A
Handbook of Varieties of English, vol. 2: Morphology and Syntax_. Berlin, New
York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Michael Moss, PhD, is an Associate Professor, at the University of Gdansk. His
research interests include syntax (in the Minimalist Program) and historical
linguistics. His current research is centered on Polish syntax and the
historical development of various clitics in that language.

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