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Review of  Language in Theory

Reviewer: Iwona Witczak Plisiecka
Book Title: Language in Theory
Book Author: Peter Stockwell Mark Robson
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 16.2453

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Date: Fri, 19 Aug 2005 11:36:43 +0200 (CEST)
From Iwona Witczak-Plisiecka
Subject: Language in Theory: A Resource Book for Students

AUTHORS: Stockwell, Peter; Robson, Mark
TITLE: Language in Theory
SUBTITLE: A Resource Book for Students
SERIES: Routledge English Language Introductions
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
YEAR: 2005

Iwona Witczak-Plisiecka, Department of English Language, University
of Lodz, Poland

"Language in Theory" is a new book in the Routledge English
Language Introduction (RELI) series, which aims to be a source of
teaching aids for undergraduate and graduate students. On one
hundred and seventy six pages this new book offers an introduction
into the domain of theoretical linguistics. It focuses on nine areas of
linguistic research, which form nine 'strands' through the book. These
include linguistic aspects of gender, race, society, performativity,
intention, cognition, creativity, figuration, and interpretation. The
layout sets the book apart from other handbooks in the field. As in
other works in the series, the topics cross-cut four sections of the
book, which subsequently extend the precision and depth of the
discussion. Section one, 'Introduction: Key concepts in language in
theory', introduces the nine topics in general terms. Each of its sub-
sections includes basic information such as a brief overview of the
historical background and development of the topic as well as
definitions of relevant basic terminology and concepts. Section
two, 'Development', offers a further elaboration of the background for
each theme typically focusing on one aspect or area of research
supplemented with 'activities', i.e. tasks for the reader. The third
section, 'Exploration', presents texts or fragments of texts, suggests
problems and exercises connected with the topic involved through
which the reader should be able to gain more independence. Finally,
the fourth section, 'Extension', provides a sample of relevant readings.
The growing levels of expected expertise, especially at the first three
levels, is reflected in the changes in subtitles in the four main parts,
e.g. section three is introduced in part A as 'Language and society', in
part B - 'Language, society and history', in C - 'Reading the political',
and in D - 'Society: Theodor W. Adorno'. Section 5 is introduced in
part A as 'Locating intention', then in part B with the title 'Dislocating
intention', in C - 'Desiring intention', and finally in D as 'Intention:
Michel Foucault'. Thus, the reader is presented with a choice, they
can approach the text from cover to cover, by the topic, or may decide
to pick up sections of interest. The main body of the book is
supplemented with a bibliographical list of suggested further readings
for each topic. There is also a 'Glossarial Index', which lists both
names and linguistic concepts referred to in the main text of the book.

"Language in Theory" is clearly written, the topics and arguments are
illustrated with an extremely rich variety of vivid examples and samples
of writings which range from Aristotle and Shakespeare's sonnets
through Thomas Babington Macaulay's reports, Sigmund Freud,
Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, to the prose of Joseph Conrad,
George Orwell, James Joyce and Ursula Le Guin (especially strands 9
and 10 are richly illustrated with literary examples). Many students are
likely to find the correlation between Soren Kierkegaard and Woody
Allen fairly attractive (cf. comment on the absent God, p.14), as well
as appreciate the authors' acknowledgement of the fact that 'ideology'
was a very unfashionable term, being associated with "an unsubtle
form of classical Marxism" (p.8) (although 'was' may still not be right
for readers from East and central Europe). The diversity present in the
examples may be seen as a vice, but more probably the eclecticism is
a virtue in a book which is addressed to such a wide audience
(primarily students of linguistics, sociology and critical theory as
indicated in the preface). The variety allows the reader to choose not
only the thematic area of interest, but also the manner in which they
are going to pursue their aims, and the texture they choose to
analyse. Furthermore, the readings chosen by the authors make this
publication different from other books on the theories of language.
Much of the reading material is quite new either in time or focus. For
example, performativity is discussed and illustrated with reference to
Judith Butler's works (e.g. 1997) and is focused on gender. While
discussing ideology and language the authors evoke Slavoy Zizek. It
is clearly visible throughout the book that the content is social science

Naturally, language, being a social phenomenon, cannot be perceived
in isolation from society. There is no linguistic communication and
communication in general without the intervention of social issues.
However, in the reviewed book most of the chapters are presented in
a manner which instantly directs the reader towards sociology, politics
and literary studies. This seems to be reflective not only of the
authors' personal interests (Peter Stockwell is the author of 'Cognitive
Poetics' (2002), 'Sociolinguistics' (2002), and 'The Poetics of Science
Fiction'(2000) and Mark Robson has an interest in politics and literary
criticism), but also of present tendencies in linguistics. The 'gender'
section contains references to social power, 'Race' to language and
identity, but also colonialism and Wittgensteinian 'private language'. All
of strand eight is devoted to stylistics and figures of speech. Tropes
are discussed with reference to Shakespeare and Aristotle, as well as
modern linguistic theories, especially those cognitive in approach.
Metaphors discussed are connected to the problem of ideology and
power and the rhetoric used with regard to e.g. the Cold War and Iraq.
The examples quoted by the authors recall "Metaphors We Live By"
by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) even though the book is
not cited. Nonetheless, both Lakoff and Johnson are richly
represented in the bibliography and further readings sections with
other publications.

The authors of the textbook exhibit a dynamic approach to meaning
(cf. strand 9) with a place for under- and indeterminacy, and
inference. The last theme, 'The reception of meaning', directly touches
upon the question of linguistic underdeterminacy, which has been a
subject of a warm ongoing debate in theoretical linguistics for the last
few years, cf. discussions within relevance-theoretic framework (e.g.
Carston 2002). Discussing interpretation, next to relevance theory the
authors evoke the distinction between 'segregationist'
and 'integrationist' linguistics (p.62), which further emphasises their
focus on social aspects. In general, "Language in Theory" is more
about the relation between language and social reality than anything
else. The problem of linguistic determinism is omnipresent throughout
the book and in fact constitutes a linking thread through all nine
topics. Thus, the title may lead the reader astray. One needs to be
familiar with the RELI series orientation to know what to expect and
that what they confront is a broad sociolinguistic perspective of
language in theory rather than formal theoretical account and
discussion of linguistic forms. There are precious few English
introductory handbooks on linguistic issues. Most of the ones that are
available focus on one theory or approach. Those which adopt a
broader perspective are usually addressed to advanced students or
professionals, cf. a rich collection of articles edited by Aronoff and
Rees-Miller (2000). Other handbooks which cite 'linguistics'
or 'introduction to language' in their titles, such as widely known Yule's
(1985/1996) "The Study of Language" or Fromkin and Rodman's
(1983/ & Hyams 2003) "An Introduction to Language", follow the
traditional strata of linguistic analysis, i.e. start from what is often
recognized as core linguistics: phonetics, phonology, morphology,
syntax, semantics, and pragmatics to proceed towards social issues
more readily associated with applied linguistics.

As mentioned above, "Language in Theory" is much different from
such publications. The authors, by their own admission in
the 'Introduction' (, follow the fields of interest addressed by the
RELI series, of which Peter Stockwell is the general editor, and
explicitly state: "Throughout this book we have taken a view of
language as interactive discourse and as social practice" (p.21).
There is little mention of theories such as generative grammar (apart
from brief comments on 'innateness hypothesis' and
competence/performance distinction in sections B6 - 'Mind reading'
and C6 - 'Language and Mind', pp.50-1), functional grammar or logic
and language. Focusing on social aspects, the book shows language
as inherent in theory or theories and inseparable from them, but all
these theories pertain into social studies. Apparently, this feature can
both discourage and be welcomed by many prospective readers. Not
only the choice, but also the order of topics presented in "Language in
Theory" may be seen as controversial. The authors start from gender,
race and society, pause at a more traditional linguistic topic of
performativity (where however they fail to recognize the fact that John
L. Austin (1962) eventually modified his distinction into constatives
and performatives by including the former as a sub-group of the latter
(p.10-13)), only to concentrate on cognitive and stylistic approaches.

While offering a wide variety of readings, "Language in Theory" can
be economical with terminology, names and references (cf. initial
paragraphs of 'Consciousness and cognition', pp.16-18). This seems
to be done on purpose, apparently not to bore the reader. Despite the
simplification which is created, such practice may be seen as an
advantage in an introductory work and can make it more accessible to
truly interdisciplinary audience.

One of the strengths of "Language in Theory" lies in offering an
opportunity for discussion, a virtual discussion with the handbook (its
authors) itself and group discussion based on the material offered.
Bearing in mind that the book is primarily addressed to beginners or
false beginners in the field, it could be profitable if the publishers
supplemented it with an accompanying website as they have done for
most of other textbooks in the series (and in fact promised for this
volume on p. vi). It would also be convenient for such readers if the
volume included a section providing definitions of basic terminology,
not just an index of terms and names put together.

Undoubtedly, a textbook of the type cannot satisfy all the readers. The
material included in it must be narrowed down due to limitation of
space and the necessity to select. Most of the topics, virtually each
chapter, deserves not just a monograph but a book-length
bibliography. However, the ambition of such a book cannot be to
cover everything, but to introduce an uninitiated reader into
linguistically oriented topics of interest. "Language in Theory" presents
a succinct account of relevant issues. It presents the reader with a
dense information network, which is not simplistic even on the most
elementary 'A' level. It is clearly written and accessible to even
undergraduate students in a variety of disciplines from linguistics to
philosophy, sociology, gender studies and many other areas of social
science, in overall a timely publication with up-to-date content being a
valuable teaching aid both for class use (its content can be
successfully used to supplement classes on both undergraduate and
graduate levels) and self-study. There is also a lot of common sense
and humour in the text (cf. e.g. forms of creativity, p. 93f.). The volume
is recommended for anybody with an interest in linguistics with the
caveat that readers new to the field may not escape its sociolinguistic
bias. From the theoretical linguistic point of view, it is apparent that
even those who cannot agree with all the ideas advocated in the book
can find in it much to discuss, oppose to, or develop.

In summary, the 'flexi-text' design, where topics are interwoven with
levels of expertise, applied to all textbooks in the series, proves to be
a relevant framework for introductory books on sophisticated
topics. "Language in Theory" is a RELI-able (sic!) textbook and
apparently complementary to other books in the Routledge series.


Aronoff, Mark, and Janie Rees-Miller (eds.) (2000) The Handbook of
Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Austin, John Langshaw (1962) How to Do Things with Words. Oxford:
Clarendon Press.

Butler, Judith (1997) Excitable Speech. London: Routledge.

Carston, Robyn (2002) Thoughts and Utterances. The Pragmatics of
Explicit Communication. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fromkin Victoria & Robert Rodman (1983) An Introduction to
Language. CBS College Publishing.

Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, & Nina Hyams (2003) An
Introduction to Language, Seventh Edition. Boston, MA: Heinle).

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson (1980) Metaphors We Live By.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stockwell, Peter (2000) The Poetics of Science Fiction. London:

Stockwell, Peter (2002) Cognitive Poetics. An Introduction. London:

Stockwell, Peter (2002) Sociolinguistics. A resource book for students.
London: Routledge.

Yule, George (1985/1996) The Study of Language. Cambridge
University Press.


Iwona Witczak-Plisiecka received her MPhil in Linguistics from Trinity
College, Dublin, Eire and her MA and PhD in English Studies from the
University of Lodz, Poland. Her research interests are primarily in
semantics, pragmatics and philosophy of language. Her other
academic interests include: language attitudes and varieties of
English, corpus linguistics, LSP: legal texts, and translation.

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