Review of An Introduction to English Phonology
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
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
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
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
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-
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
| 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.