Author: Christopher J Hall
Title: An Introduction to Language and Linguistics
Subtitle: Breaking the Language Spell
Publisher: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
Reviewed by John Fry, San José State University
Christopher J. Hall has written a brief but remarkable new introduction to
language and linguistics. The book's central theme is the ''Language
Spell'', a metaphor coined by Hall to describe the ''evolutionary magic'' that
prevents us from seeing how language really works even as we unconsciously
take it for granted in our daily lives. The field of linguistics is
presented as the scientific quest to break out of the spell and to glimpse
the hidden structure underlying our language use.
The book is divided into four parts. Part I, entitled ''Magic'', introduces
Hall's metaphor of the Language Spell. ''In our daily lives,'' writes Hall,
''we operate as though under a spell, content to know that language is
there, but not able to see it plainly or penetrate is mystery... The
language spell keeps most of the extraordinary nature of human language
tidily in the background as we concentrate on the messages it conveys.''
Hall then introduces his second theme, the Fundamental Paradox. The
Fundamental Paradox of language is that it is at the same time a biological
and a sociocultural entity. That is, while languages exist only in
individual human minds, they only work if they are perceived as shared by
social groups. Because the biological reality of language is hidden by the
Spell, we are normally aware of only its social purposes.
The remainder of the book introduces the reader to a broad variety of
topics in the fields of theoretical and applied linguistics, demonstrating
the different ways that linguists go about ''bombarding language with the
counter-spells of science''.
Part II, entitled ''Words'', addresses what words are, how they arise, and
how they relate to concepts in the minds of speakers and hearers. Each
lexical item, Hall explains, is represented in the mind as a 'triad'
composed of a physically externalizable form (phonological, orthographic,
or signed); a syntactic frame; and a meaning. Other topics introduced here
include language change, the phonological structure of words, and
children's acquisition of word meaning.
Part III, ''Grammar'', covers morphology, syntax, language acquisition, and
pragmatics. Here Hall sketches an account of how language-neutral
conceptual structures (including thematic roles) are mapped onto linguistic
expressions via the syntactic component of the language faculty. The
book's treatment of lexical and syntactic theory in Parts II and III is
strongly influenced by the ideas of Ray Jackendoff (2002), as Hall is eager
Finally, Part IV, ''Babel'', addresses variation, both between languages
(typology) and within languages (sociolinguistics), before concluding with
a section entitled ''Living under the Language Spell''. Here Hall wraps up
his discussion of the Fundamental Paradox. Language, he concludes, ''is
simultaneously both biological and sociocultural, because that's it's job:
to link separate biological organisms through a channel which allows them
to share thoughts and feelings, and so build an individual identity that is
also integrated into a series of culturally-defined groups.'' Hall ends the
book with an appeal for wider dissemination of linguistic knowledge as a
way of combatting language prejudice, language death, and other
consequences of linguistic ignorance.
Throughout the text, Hall illustrates his points with constructed examples
as well as with snippets of language use taken from novels, telephone
transcripts, court proceedings, and other examples from everyday life.
One striking feature of the book is how seriously it takes written
language. Throughout the text, writing is presented as a modality of
language on par with speaking and signing. This contrasts with the
''phonocentric'' stance often associated with modern linguistics.
There are already dozens of introductory texts on language and linguistics.
Do we really need another one?
In this case, the answer is ''yes''. Hall's book is highly original, thanks
mainly to the ''breaking the spell'' trope that underlies and motivates it.
As Hall explains in the Preface, ''I have written this book in a way that
embraces and integrates the social and the psychological aspects of
language, using the spell metaphor to bridge the gap.'' At that he has
Hall is enthusiastic about his subject and explains it well. His prose is
vivid and colorful and packed with apt metaphors. Some examples:
''Activation of elements in memory is not like an on/off switch, but more
like the warming up and cooling down of an oven'' Hall writes about lexical
priming. Later, on innateness: ''The brain of a newborn child or chimp is
not like the hollow shell of a new building, with empty rooms awaiting
plumbing and power, furniture and fittings. Instead it is already cabled
for electricity and hooked up to the Internet... just waiting for the
interior decorators...'' Hall's prose does occasionally fall flat however:
''a new sentence is more commonplace than a sneeze during the Moscow winter''.
Succinctness and brevity are among the book's virtues, but in many places
the discussion simply zips by too fast. Hall warns the reader about the
breakneck pace in the preface: ''What you'll experience in the following
chapters is a roller-coaster ride through the labyrinth of human language.''
I sometimes found myself wishing that Hall would slow the coaster down,
and some readers may be tempted to jump off. Some important topics blaze by
so quickly that you miss them if you blink. Most glaringly, phonetics and
phonology are relegated to just under four pages (!), in a subsection
entitled ''Sounds and phonemes'' tucked deep inside Chapter 5. Many of the
topics that Hall rushes through cry out for a helpful illustrative example
or anecdote. For instance, the explanation of the contrast in language
production of Broca's and Wernicke's aphasics in Chapter 11 could have been
nicely complemented with some short representative transcriptions of
A number of topics that one normally finds in an introductory text are
missing from Hall's book. My own pet peeve in this regard is the omission
of count nouns and mass nouns (although Hall does distinguish ''concrete''
from ''abstract'' nouns). The syntax chapter introduces the notions of
phrase-structure rules and X-bar structure, but (wisely in my view) does
not wade into the swamp of transformations and empty categories.
The sections on linguistic bigotry and discrimination are generally
even-handed, although American readers might quibble with Hall's
characterization of the USA as an ''officially monolingual nation'' (p. 223)
where ''Latin American immigrants...have had their traditional languages
taken away from them'' (p. 25).
The book is written in a very informal style that is often refreshing but
sometimes off-putting. For example, Hall frequently uses dot-dot-dot
ellipsis in the main text to indicate pause or hesitation rather than
omission (e.g., ''dreams ... and so much more'', p. 51). These ellipses give
the text a chatty feel that seems out of place in an academic work. I
sometimes found myself longing for the iron-fist editing and attention to
typesetting detail associated with traditional textbooks, with their
em-dashes and serial commas.
The informality of the book also extends to its cross references. In
Chapter 11, near the end of the book, the reader is referred back to ''the
egg diagram'' in Chapter 3. Navigating my way back to this diagram, some
200 pages earlier in the text, proved quite challenging. The book offers no
list of figures. Since the page headers do not indicate chapter numbers, I
had to consult the table of contents in order to find my way back to
Chapter 3. Next, I had to flip through all of Chapter 3 to find the
figures (there are four) and then determine which of these was the ''egg
diagram'' (the figure's title does not include these words). A helpful
cross reference to ''page 67'' would have been appreciated.
Hall states plainly in the preface that the book is not a conventional
textbook. ''It's too selective and idiosyncratic in coverage,'' Hall
explains, ''to provide the kind of rigorous survey needed by students in
linguistics courses.'' Instead, Hall states, ''The purpose of the book is to
appeal to as many ordinary readers as possible, to share with them a broad
vision of the wonders of human language and the peril of taking them for
I agree that this is not a linguistics textbook, but that is largely to its
credit. Compared to Hall's book, most linguistics textbooks are bloated
(not to mention scandalously expensive) and seem to be (and often are)
written by committees. This book is pleasantly idiosyncratic but always
focused on the big picture: what language is and how it works.
On the other hand, there are two features that good linguistics textbooks
offer that Hall's book doesn't. The first is data from a variety of
languages. Hall's examples are almost exclusively in English, with a
smattering of Spanish. The second feature missing from Hall's book is a
set of exercises at end of each chapter. In my opinion, both elements,
diverse language data and problem sets, are essential components of any
introductory linguistics course. Supplemented by these resources, Hall's
engaging book would make a fine textbook for an introductory course, even
though it was not intended as such.
Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, meaning, grammar,
evolution. Oxford University Press, 2002.