Review of Exploring Language Structure
|AUTHOR: Thomas E. Payne
TITLE: Exploring Language Structure
SUBTITLE: A Student's Guide
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
Reviewer: Michael Moss, PhD, University of Gdansk
When looking for a textbook to use in 'Introduction to Linguistics' or
'Linguistics 101' there are several titles that immediately spring to mind.
One of the problems that I have had with the available textbooks, however,
is that they do not really give the students an opportunity to get involved
in the subject. Payne's 'Exploring Language Structure' is different. It is
very comprehensive, but takes a 'hands on' approach which forces the
students to work with language and actually 'do' linguistics.
Before moving on to a review of the book's content, here is a brief
technical description. The book is 367 pages long, broken down into 10
chapters with a glossary and an index. The chapters move from an
introduction to morphology an syntax, showing how to break words and
sentences down into their component parts, to fairly detailed chapters on
typology, grammatical relations, valance, and multiple clausal structures.
The book uses many examples from English to illustrate a basic point, but
quickly moves to languages that are much less common. This gives the
students an opportunity to use the tools and technics described in the
chapter on structures that they have not previously formed judgments about.
It does, however, require a confident instructor, and students that are
willing to really puzzle things out.
Table of contents:
1. Introduction to morphology and syntax
2. Morphological processes and conceptual categories
4. Word Classes
5. Exploring subclasses
6. Constituent structure
7. Language typology
8. Grammatical relations
9. Voice and valence
10. Multi-clause constructions.
As mentioned above, introducing students to the field of linguistics is
really a difficult task. All of us have our special area of interest be it
syntax, semantics, discourse analysis or etymology and we are often forced
to become more specialized in these particular fields as time goes on. At
the same time, as linguists, all of us are fascinated by how this all
works, and the many different aspects involved in the successful analysis
of language and linguistic structures.
One solution to this problem is provided by Fromkin and Rodman's
''Introduction to Language'' (F&R); a comprehensive book which touches on all
of the major topics in linguistics. F&R put as much information between two
covers as they possibly could while trying to retain the 'introductory'
nature of their book. One thing that I have found, however, using this book
in class-rooms where English is not the native language, is that the
chapters are so full, and so comprehensive that the students find them a
bit too dense. Fromkin and Rodman is an excellent text, but it can be a bit
Another popular title is Yule's ''The study of language''. This book has the
same goal as F&R, but takes a different approach. Yule breaks the
information down into short chapters which are easy to read. My students
have found this book more approachable. I have been less enthusiastic,
however, because the students are not as well prepared as when they read
F&R. Furthermore, both texts share one serious problem; in trying to cover
a vast range of material, they must gloss over many topics, providing key
words and brief explanations, and little chance for the student to actually
'get their hands dirty' with the linguistic material.
The book that is under review here takes a new approach. As is visible in
the table of contents (listed above), this book does not try to cover all
aspects of linguistics. It covers a fairly restricted number of topics
(essentially morphology and syntax). Interestingly, by using a restricted
range of topics, the book is able to give the student a broad range of
experience in actually working with linguistic data.
As an introductory text, students are exposed to what I think of as
'language itself'. That is, the book concentrates on topics which look at
the workings of language as an system in its own context. Books like R&F's
and Yule's make a point of including topics that look at language as an
object/system within a larger context such as society, history, and
computer science, as well as the brain internal aspects including child
acquisition. ''Exploring Language Structure'', however, shows the complex
interconnections of the language 'modules' (phonology, morphology, syntax
and semantics), through the analysis of morphological and syntactic
The first six chapters (just over half of the book) are dedicated to
morphology and syntax. In fact, syntax is really only dealt with directly
in one chapter (6). The other five chapters deal with morphology,
morphophonemics, word classes and so on. This emphasizes something that is
often glossed over in modern linguistics classes and textbooks, namely, the
importance of morphological operations. Isolating morphemes, determining
which allomorph is actually the underlying morpheme, looking at
derivational versus inflectional morphology are all important topics.
Especially as they are topics that can be done in English and in other
languages with relatively little technical training. But, more importantly,
they also give the students a chance to actually do some linguistic analysis.
The discussion on word classes in chapter 4 is well presented. Many times,
as linguists, we are eager to get to what we think of as the ''real topics''
and basic grammar gets left out of the picture. This sometimes leads to the
situation where we are giving lectures in advanced syntax, and the students
are confused about what an adjective really is or why some words can be
nouns and adjectives and other similar problems. I teach linguistics to
students who are not native English speakers, and this problem becomes more
acute when words are defined one way in a practical English class and
completely differently in a syntax class. Payne goes to great lengths to
stay theory neutral in this chapter, which is quite a difficult task. The
information is presented clearly and gives the student a good idea of why
such ideas as ''noun'' and ''adjective'' are actually so tricky to deal with.
However, I was disappointed to see that Payne did not mention Baker's
(2003) Lexical Categories, which presents a very interesting discussion on
Chapter 6 is about syntax, a very debated area of linguistics. As I
mentioned, Payne tries to make this book as theory neutral as possible,
which means that he has to do a lot of side-stepping in this chapter. This
is a great improvement over both F&R and Yule. The chapter introduces the
student to current work in syntax, with the added benefit of a bit of
historical background, which helps the reader understand how such
conclusions have been formed. Constituency is dealt with in detail as are
hierarchical structure and tree diagrams that are used in Generative
grammar. Payne also goes into issues of ambiguity, coordination and negation.
Chapter 7 is the least ''language internal'' of all the chapters. Here the
author deals with issues of typology. The essential topics are covered to
give the reader an understanding of how and why languages are grouped
together in various ways. This chapter also gets the reader ready for the
more advanced topics that will be dealt with in the three final chapters.
The remaining chapters deal with issues that are more abstract (at least in
English) due to the fact that we do not often have visible morphological
evidence for their existence. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 deal with some of the
issues which are often considered to be central to syntax in general. These
topics include passivization, subject raising, Nominative/Accusative and
Ergative/Absolutive patterns, relative clauses, and grammatical versus
thematic roles and relations. These are challenging topics, which make
these chapters the most interesting and the most difficult. What is
fascinating and original in Payne's presentation is that these topics are
not taken from the perspective of a particular theory of syntax but from
the morphosyntactic evidence that comes from a broad range of languages
outside of the commonly studied Indo-European family. Payne also does not
shy away from discussing the interaction of these phenomena, but duly
includes discussion about how they interact and what the effects are.
This book does have a set of technical problems related to transcription
that I must address. At the beginning of the book, Payne includes a full
table of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols for both
consonants and vowels. This leads one to believe that the examples and
exercises in the book will be written using this alphabet. He indicates in
the preface that IPA transcription will be used more frequently in the
first three chapters and when the language in question has no writing
system or when significant information would not be present in the standard
writing system. I find this disappointing.
The result is that in order to really make use of the book one must look up
the phonological information about each language used in the book
individually. Normally this would not be a problem. However, one of the
attractions of this book is that it includes many examples and exercises
from little known languages. Instead of making the book vibrant and
intriguing the examples become cloudy and difficult, because we have no
guide to their pronunciation. Although I uphold his decision to include
these languages, it is discouraging to consider how much time would have to
be spent looking up information on how the native writing systems of so
many languages is actually pronounced.
To be fair, when other scripts such as Greek, Russian, or Korean are used
in a language, Payne does include the IPA transcription. But consistency
seems to me to be an important here. The IPA should be used throughout the
book. The author also seems to support this idea, as he has included the
tables at the beginning of the book and uses the transcription in the first
three chapters. I feel that the book would be improved if the IPA
transcriptions were included under the original texts. Even a table of
symbols that are translated into IPA at the beginning of the book would do.
As a related note, many of the symbols used in the text seem to be adopted
from the Americanist Phonetic Alphabet (APA). Indeed some of the Russian
examples are given in APA without any further explanation (p. 142 (7); p.
143 table 5.3) However, some letters such as ą, ę and ų are not listed in
either standard. Furthermore, it seems that in several places the IPA and
the APA have been used in a kind of 'mix'. Some transcriptions (p. 127-28
ex. 4.2) include the IPA ɛ̃ and are then closely followed by the distinctive
APA š. What are we to do with such transcriptions? The language being
transcribed in the exercise is Apanijé, a small language spoken in Brazil.
I looked but was unable to find an alphabet for this language, indicating
that we are dealing with IPA, but this leaves us with the mystery of what
to do with the š.
I have corresponded directly with Professor Payne, and although these
problems are present, they seem to be the result of what makes this book so
appealing. That is, the number of languages used and the fact that they are
'small' languages means that they have been gathered from many sources and
are often written in idiosyncratic scripts. The result is a 'mixed bag' of
symbols and characters. Payne points out that this is also a kind of
exposure for the students, as such scripts are reality in the study of
Another exciting aspect of the book is it's extended life on the internet.
More and more frequently we find that a published textbook needs to be
updated almost immediately. Professor Payne is dealing with this problem by
setting up a parallel web site that includes corrections to the book,
further exercises in .pdf format and solutions to the exercises. At the
moment, much of this page is 'under construction', which is understandable
since the book has only been out a few months. Hopefully the page will be
fully up and running by the Fall so that teacher's and students can benefit
from the extended interface. At the moment, the access to the exercises is
granted to people who can present credentials showing that they are in fact
teachers. This seems a good idea at the beginning, but I am not sure that
heavy restrictions are really necessary.
Baker, Mark. 2003. Lexical Categories; Verbs, Nouns and Adjectives.
Cambridge Cambridge University Press
Fromkin, V.A. and Rodman, R. 1997 Introduction to Language 6th edition.
Yule, George. 1996. The Study of Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Michael Moss, PhD, Associate Professor, Univeristy of Gdansk
My research interests include syntax (in the Minimalist Program) and
historical linguistics. My current research is centered on Polish syntax
and the historical development of various clitics in that language.