O'Grady, William, John Archibald, Mark Aronoff, and Janie Rees-Miller, ed.
(2001) Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction, 4th Edition, Bedford/St.
Martin's. 751 pp + Instructor's Resource Manual and Transparency Masters.
Ashish Mehta, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
[Another review of this book may be found at
The book under review is the fourth edition of the textbook. As such, it is
meant for the beginner and no prior knowledge of the discipline is presumed.
It can also be useful for short-term courses for students of other
disciplines, but ideally it is meant for linguistics students. Taken
together with the extra resources provided for the instructor, it forms a
The first thing that strikes the reader is unusual breadth of coverage - from
the core areas of linguistics to specialized areas like psycholinguistics,
first language acquisition and computational linguistics which are usually
not introduced in an introductory textbook. In addition, the US edition has
a chapter on `Indigenous Languages of North America' as well. Indeed, one
wonders if anything is left out at all.
Every chapter, a self-contained unit written by different authors, begins
with a literary quote, followed by a list of the objectives, and then the
main text of the chapter. The end of the chapter includes a summary, key
terms, recommended readings, exercises and a box (called `For the Student
Linguist') which presents a theme in a style meant to connect the beginner
with the topic. A glossary and a language index follow seventeen chapters.
Language: A Preview by William O'Grady
This introductory chapter presents basic notions of scientific inquiry into
language- that all languages are equal, and their grammars provide a window
to the human mind. It presents an overview of the insights of twentieth
century linguistics. Concepts of creativity, competence, universality and
change are introduced to the newcomers.
Phonetics: The sounds of Language by Michael Dobrovolsky
Beginning with the standard phonetic transcription, the reader is presented
the broad outline of articulatory phonetics. Place and manner of
articulation and suprasegmentals are explained in detail.
Phonology: The Function and Patterning of Sounds by Michael Dobrovolsky and
Phonological analysis begins with contrasting segments, phonetically
conditioned variations and leads to the supra-segmental phonology. After the
basics come advanced sections on features, feature hierarchy and finally
derivations and rules. From picking out minimal pairs to grouping and
organizing features of sounds, this chapter covers a vast ground.
Morphology: The Analysis of Word Structure by William O'Grady and Videa de
Analysis of word structure begins with morphemes of various types, and then
we go to common morphological phenomena like compounding and cliticization.
Derivation, compounding and other types of word formation are dealt at
length in separate sections. Inflection and morphophonemics are given
Syntax: The Analysis of Sentence Structure by William O'Grady
The first section deals with Categories and phrasal structure, which forms a
basis to introduce X-bar theory and mechanisms of complementation. This is
followed by a section on transformations, a brief note on Deep and Surface
structures. The basic philosophy of Universal Grammar and parametric
variation is presented. The concluding section presents a brief on `Other
Types of Syntactic Analysis,' namely, the transformational analysis, the
relational analysis and the functional analysis.
Semantics: The Analysis of Meaning by William O'Grady
Apart from the semantics proper, the chapter also deals with
pragmatics/discourse analysis. Beginning with semantic relations among
words and among sentences, it moves on to the interaction between syntax and
semantics, which also touches upon the Theta theory. Binding theory relating
to the interpretation of pronouns is included here, and not in the earlier
chapter dealing with syntax. Pragmatics is introduced in brief, ending with
the conversational maxims.
Historical Linguistics: The Study of Language Change by Robert W. Murray
Nature of language change is dealt with in all its four aspects, from sound
level to word level to sentence and semantic levels, followed by spread of
change. One section deals with language reconstruction based on existing
languages and its relation with typology.
Classification of Languages by Aleksandra Steinbergs
This chapter deals with two types of classification, namely, typological and
genetic. The section on typological classification explains how different
languages can be grouped with respect to phonology, morphology and syntax.
Genetic classification involves various language families, and the leading
language families are discussed in detail. The recent attempts to group
these families into macrofamilies are also mentioned.
Indigenous Families of North America by Victor Golla
This short chapter, added exclusively for the U.S. edition, overlaps with
the two preceding chapters. The reader is introduced to the origin and
classification of languages of the region, analysed on grounds of phonetics
and phonology, morphology and syntax. The concluding section deals with the
future of this class of languages.
First Language Acquisition by William O'Grady and Sook Whan Cho
The study of First Language Acquisition relies heavily on experimental
methods apart from theoretical work, and the chapter introduces the two,
related modes of inquiry. It covers the phonological, vocabulary,
morphological and syntactic development. The roles played by nature (e.g.,
inborn knowledge) and by environment (e.g., feedback) are also discussed.
Second Language Acquisition by John Archibald
This introduction to the area of Second Language (L2) studies focusses
equally on L2 teaching studies and on theoretical approaches to L2
acquisition. The role of the first language, interlanguage grammars and
markedness and subset principle are discussed. Factors affecting L2
acquisition and classroom issues are detailed in the next sections.
Psycholinguistics: The Study of Language Processing by Gary Liben
The study of language processing mechanisms involves experimental work,
methods of which are introduced here. Various methods dealing with lexicon,
morphological and sentence processing and phonology are discussed. This is
followed by a brief introduction to psycholinguistic modelling- or, how
'language is done'.
Brain and Language by Gary Libben
The primer in neurolinguistics begins with anatomical detailing of the
brain, followed by relevant findings of experiments. Then, we move over to
linguistic phenomena: various types of aphasia, dyslexia and dysgraphia; and
how they bear upon the linguistic theory.
Language in Social Context by Marjory Meechan and Janie Rees-Miller
The chapter on sociolinguistics touches upon broad range of topics:
discourse analysis, ethnomethodology, language and power and official
languages and language planning, among others. Variation studies are
discussed with reference to the case of the U.S. Chapter concludes with a
note on pidgins/creoles and language mixture.
Writing and Language by Michael Dobrovolsky and William O'Grady
Study of writing systems is a subject of a separate chapter here. The
authors present an overview of the history and typology or various writing
systems, wherein the case of non-European writing systems is presented
separately. A section deals with history and reforms of English orthography
and the chapter concludes with a discussion on how writing and reading are
Animal Communication by Michael Dobrovolsky
When language is called a species-specific property, linguists have always
wondered about the designs of animal communications and how it is
different/similar to the human communication that is language. This chapter
presents an overview of various ways in which animals communicate
non-vocally. This forms the basis for raising the larger issues related to
the linguistics theory: comparison between various communication systems and
the human language.
Computational Linguistics by Judith Klavans
The final chapter brings 'the cutting-edge research', as it were, to the
freshers' class. It introduces the computer-aided research programs dealing
with synthesis, recognition, analysis and/or generation of human speech, of
morphological permutations, and of sentences. It also shows how this branch
of linguistics can deal with practical problems.
_Contemporary Linguistics_ is without doubt one of the very best textbooks
we have. Going through it brought back the delights of discovering the
Science of Language for the first time. Seventeen chapters of this book deal
with more branches of linguistics than most other textbooks can. Moreover,
the style is lucid, successfully communicating the difficult notions.
One major plus-point here is the novel concept of boxes, entitled `For the
Student Linguist.' If the main text were to fail in making the topic
interesting, the boxes playfully appeal to the beginner's curiosity.
Linguistics, unlike most areas of inquiry, is full of delightful facts
around us all, and it would be a great help tp a fresher if they are brought
out while discussing theoretical analysis.
It must be appreciated that every introductory textbook has to walk on the
tightrope, balancing between accessibility and theoretical rigour. However,
the mammoth textbook is not without its drawbacks on many other counts.
The chapter scheme raises several questions. For example, it can be argued
that areas like Second Language Acquisition, Animal Communication or Writing
do not merit a chapter-length treatment, and even if they do, not at the
cost of many other areas. Which ones? Pragmatics and discourse analysis have
emerged as a major area of investigation. Areal and geographical linguistics
has witnessed proliferation of research. I believe that more justice could
have been done to them. A chapter devoted to the history of linguistic
thought could have proved useful.
This chapter scheme creates another problem- each chapter is a
self-contained, stand-alone unit. While this grants flexibility for
tailoring courses of various durations, the vital inter-linkage is ignored.
Superficially, phonology as discussed in Historical Linguistics has links
with the same as discussed in other chapters. At a deeper level, methods
employed in syntax bear similarity with those of phonology, and they need to
be highlighted to a beginner.
Every chapter strives to avoid reference to any school or theory, and thus
ignoring a theoretical perspective cutting across various branches of
linguistics. Prime example here is of course the generative grammar.
Since the title of the volume makes reference to it, the question is how
contemporary it really is. Granted that introducing Minimalist Program or
Optimality Theory does not serve much purpose at this level, there is little
justification in introducing transformation rule of syntax and Deep/Surface
One way to deal with most of the above objections is to include one
introductory (or concluding) chapter that presents a theoretical overview or
the state-of-art. It must be granted that the section on reading
recommendations at the end of every chapter shows the way further, and thus
answers to many of the criticisms made here.
What I have presented here are not shortcomings, but suggestions,
and they only serve to underline the fact that this textbook is an ambitious
work and succeeds in keeping most of the promises made.
Ashish Mehta is an M.Phil./Ph.D. student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University
of New Delhi, India, working on syntax-semantics interface issues in