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McMahon, April (2002), An Introduction to English Phonology. Oxford University Press, x+148pp, paperback ISBN 0-19-521891-4, $19.95.
Announced in http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-305.html.
Kevin Mendousse, the University of Auckland (New Zealand) and the Universite de Paris-IV Sorbonne (France).
April McMahon's An Introduction to English Phonology was designed for use on introductory courses in phonetics and phonology at undergraduate level. The author's stated objective is to provide an introduction to fundamental phonological units and concepts (essentially segmental with some discussion of suprasegmentals such as stress and syllables but only brief reference to tonal phonology), while at the same time justifying the need for their study.
McMahon's book comprises ten chapters (pp. 1-132), each of which offers exercises (except for Chapter One) and a list of recommended texts for further reading. A key to the exercises (pp. 133-142), a list of references (pp. 143-144), and a comprehensive index (pp. 145-148) complete the book. An Introduction to English Phonology begins with a definition of the phoneme, before moving on to a phonetic and phonological description, first of English consonants, then of English vowels. McMahon then discusses varieties of English, finishing with an overview of suprasegmental units.
Chapter One, "Sounds, spellings and symbols" (pp. 1-11), presents a definition of phonetics and phonology, stressing the difference between the two fields, and providing a rationale for their study. McMahon introduces the notion of the International Phonetic Alphabet, again giving justification for its use.
Chapter Two, "The phoneme: the same but different" (pp. 12-22), develops the concept of phonetic variation through an analogy with written language. McMahon goes on to expound the concept of the phoneme, affirming its psychological reality and thereby providing a rationale for its study. Related concepts such as allophones, minimal pairs and distribution are introduced here.
Chapters Three, "Describing English consonants" (pp. 23-35) and Four, "Defining distributions: consonant allophones" (pp. 36-51), present the basic tools necessary for a description of the consonants of English. The author starts with a phonetic, articulatory-oriented approach, through notions of distinctive features and the place and manner of articulation. A diagram of the vocal tract is provided (p. 27).
In Chapter Four, McMahon continues her segmental analysis of English consonants from a phonological point of view, introducing concepts such as phonological generalisation and invariance, assimilation, binary features, language-specific redundancy rules and universal rules, economical feature systems and natural classes. Throughout Chapters Three and Four, the author gradually introduces phonetic and phonological notation where this is necessary, and highlights the clarity and convenience such a system offers. She concludes her description of English consonants with a warning as to the nature of phonological rules, stressing that they are descriptive rather than normative, and underlining the limitations of the feature system.
Chapter Five, "Criteria for contrast: the phoneme system" (pp. 52-66), points out the limitations of commutation tests for minimal pairs and the need for other criteria to account for phonemicisation. The author invokes the role of phonetic similarity, defective distribution, free variation and neutralisation, along with its corollary concept, the archiphoneme. The case of neutralisation is developed through brief reference to morphophonemics. McMahon points to phonological constraints and Optimality Theory as useful tools for supplementing phonological rules, while at the same time signalling their limitations. The chapter ends with an account of the general characteristics of phoneme systems.
In Chapters Six, "Describing vowels" (pp. 67-78), and Seven, "Vowel phonemes" (pp. 79-91), McMahon presents a description of English vowels in much the same way as she did for consonants, offering first an articulatory description before dealing with phonological issues. The author covers vowel features such as front(back, high(low, lip position and length/tenseness, before dealing with monophthongs and diphthongs, and plotting them on a Vowel Quadrilateral. Next, she addresses the problematic of vowel classification and outlines the concept of cardinal vowels. The emphasis in Chapter Seven is on the phonological features of vowels, in relation not only to allophonic rules, phonetic similarity, distribution, variation, and neutralisation, but also to morphophonemic interactions such as the Scottish Vowel Length Rule and the Great Vowel Shift Rule. John Wells' "Standard Lexical Sets" are exploited as a means of comparing the vowels of different accents, including examples taken from Standard British English, General American, Standard Scottish English and New Zealand English.
In Chapter Eight, "Variation between accents" (pp. 92-103), McMahon offers a rationale for the phonological study of accents and points out that an "accent" is an idealised system. The author explains and illustrates systemic, realisational and distributional differences in English accents, making brief mention of sociolinguistic concepts such as modes of speech. Her presentation of accent variation is illustrated with reference to many different English accents.
Chapter Nine, "Syllables" (pp. 104-116), introduces the reader to the concept of the syllable as a phonological unit, its structure, constituents, and phonotactic constraints. McMahon exposes the phonological principles of Sonority Sequencing Generalisation and Onset Maximalism, the literary applications of syllable constituents (onset, rhyme, nucleus, coda), and the relationship between syllable weight and stress, as well as the problematic of syllable boundaries.
In the tenth and final chapter, "The word and above" (pp. 117-132), McMahon continues her suprasegmental analysis with a demonstration of the difficulty of determining word boundaries and a description of the phonological properties of words. She introduces the notion of stress and its phonetic characteristics, and illustrates the exceptional nature of English stress patterns. She outlines accentual rules and undertakes an analysis of some English words within the theoretical framework of Metrical Phonology. McMahon then extends this analysis to the foot, pointing out the different types of feet and their application in verse. The chapter concludes with an outline of connected speech processes such as assimilation and reduction, epenthesis and elision, as well as word-internal morphophonological processes.
McMahon's Introduction to English Phonology succeeds in its stated objectives. It clearly and accurately lays down the fundamental units and concepts in phonetics and phonology, while presupposing no prior knowledge of linguistics. This is an insightful work that provides a broad overview of English phonology through numerous examples from many different varieties of English, while encouraging introspection and reflection.
As McMahon points out, her text is structured in a "slightly unusual" way: she introduces the concept of the phoneme before giving an outline of elementary universal phonetics (p. ix). This departure from tradition is equally successful: the progression from the concept of the phoneme to phonetic and finally other phonological concepts is gradual and easy to follow. In this way, McMahon avoids the common pitfall, found in many introductory textbooks on phonology, of confusing students at the outset with a mass of new concepts, terms, notational practices and details of phonetic classification. The author introduces symbols and terminology progressively, as they are needed, which renders them less daunting to the student reader and enables her to see beyond them.
The author's stated preference for verbal descriptions over diagrams is a key to the text's extraordinary lucidity. Indeed, the language of this book is clear and very readable, making it easily accessible to the target readership. The author's descriptions and explanations are self-contained, accurate and simple, without being simplistic. McMahon's strongest point in this excellent work is her ability to communicate sometimes-difficult concepts in terms that "speak to" the student reader. Her frequent use of analogies from outside language, as in her analogy of biological classification to explain phonetic classification (pp. 23-24), is always appropriate and helpful, while adding colour to the text. This focus on the reader is also evident in the way McMahon provides a rationale for the study of many of the concepts and systems presented. It is regrettable, however, that the book does not include a glossary of terms used. Students would no doubt have found this a welcome addition to an introductory text that (necessarily) comprises a certain amount of jargon.
McMahon has attempted to make her text reasonably up-to-date, as her inclusion of more recent theories attests, namely Feature Geometry (p. 45), Metrical Phonology (pp. 120-121) and Optimality Theory (pp. 62- 63). While some advanced notions she discusses could be developed further, such as the concepts of superordinate features in the theoretical framework of Feature Geometry (Clements 1985), and of constraint ranking and violation in that of Optimality Theory (Kager 1999), to quote a few examples, McMahon's purpose is not to be exhaustive but rather to present an introduction to English phonology for undergraduates.
Having said this, her Introduction to English Phonology would have been a more comprehensive and balanced text had she placed more emphasis on acoustic phonetics. McMahon does acknowledge the significance of sound waves in phonetics (p. 24), their acoustic factors in determining allophonic variation (p. 49), and also recognizes that articulatory classification is "arguably less appropriate for vowels than for consonants" because, "the important thing is to produce a particular sort of auditory impression, so that someone listening understands which vowel in the system you are aiming at; but it does not especially matter which articulatory strategies you use to convey that auditory impression" (p. 74). To illustrate this last point, she argues that the same auditory impression can be obtained from different articulatory configurations. Yet she then goes on to claim that a treatment of acoustic phonetics is beyond the scope of an introductory text, and resorts to an exclusively articulatory description of vowel classification. While such a claim holds a certain degree of truth, it would not be beyond the scope of such a text to have briefly outlined the fundamental aims of the field of acoustic and auditory phonetics, or even to have introduced the notion of formant frequencies in relation to the mapping of vowels on the Vowel Quadrilateral.
Despite these limitations, the phonological analysis of the text is thorough and systematic. The recommended reading for each chapter presents the interested student with material for further study, and the exercises provided are interesting, relevant and often thought- provoking.
McMahon's wish that this text provide a basic grounding for more advanced, theoretical study is unquestionably realised (p. x). She has written a text that is systematic, clear and easy to read, and that should serve as a very useful textbook to accompany an introductory undergraduate course in phonology.
Clements, G. N. (1985), "The Geometry of Phonological Features", Phonology Yearbook 2, 225-252.
Kager, R. (1999), Optimality Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Kevin Mendousse is currently teaching French at the University of
Auckland (New Zealand), while completing a PhD thesis in linguistics
from the Université de Paris-IV Sorbonne (France), where he taught
English phonetics and phonology for several years. His doctoral
research stands at the crossroads of phonetics, phonology and
psycholinguistics, and is concerned with uncovering the structure of
our linguistic unconscious. His objective is to mirror the subjective
representation that naive speakers of English have of their own
phonological system, in order to evaluate their intuitive knowledge in
terms of distinctive feature theory and markedness theory.