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Review of  The Study of Language

Reviewer: Megan E Melancon
Book Title: The Study of Language
Book Author: George Yule
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 21.3271

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AUTHOR: Yule, George
TITLE: The Study of Language
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2010

Megan E. Melancon, Department of English and Rhetoric, Georgia College and State


This book is an introductory textbook designed for beginners and those
interested in the field of linguistics in general. It covers all the major
subfields of linguistics in an engaging and informative manner, without
overwhelming the reader with technical terms. This newest edition of the text
(the 4th) comprises twenty chapters, all of which are written in extremely
readable prose with examples and explanations for new and important concepts in
the field of linguistics. Each chapter follows the same format: quotations,
current issues, jokes, anecdotes, and current uses of language introduce each
one (in the chapter on Second Language Acquisition, for example, the author uses
a passage from David Sedaris, 2000, in which Sedaris discusses his difficulty in
explaining the concept of Easter, in French, to his French teacher). The author
then follows each of these blurbs with a brief discussion about how it applies
to the material in the chapter. The major headings within each chapter are
clearly set apart by font size and color, with appropriate subheadings beneath.
The final sections of each chapter, although typically overlooked by students,
actually contain as much information and learnable material as the chapters
themselves. These sections contain Study Questions, Tasks, Discussion
topics/projects, and further reading suggestions. The Study Questions are
simple memorization and regurgitation exercises, while the Tasks and Discussion
topics/projects sections build on the information presented in each chapter.
They go far beyond simple memorization of concepts and terms, and enable the
instructor to branch out into areas in which students seem to need more
instruction, thereby challenging students to perform linguistically-based tasks
and research projects. The book also includes a glossary, a reference section,
and an index, all of which are very complete and very useful.

Chapter 1 begins with the origins of language, and has been updated to include a
discussion of the most recent research on genetics and language. Chapter 2,
entitled 'Animals and Human Language', has information about the early studies
done on chimps, and also includes some vital concepts for the students:
displacement, arbitrariness, productivity, cultural transmission, and duality.
Chapters 3 and 4 introduce students to phonetics ('The Sounds of Language'), and
phonology ('The Sound Patterns of Language'). The two chapters are, of course,
at the heart of any linguistics course, and the explanations of the concepts and
terms dealing with these subjects are clear and succinct. Chapters 5 and 6,
entitled 'Word Formation' and 'Morphology', respectively, deal with those two
subjects in a compendious manner. The examples in these two chapters, in
particular, are extremely current, and are therefore appealing to a general
audience. For example, the author quotes Bill Bryson (1994) discussing the
origin of the word 'Santa Claus' in the introduction to Word Formation (52), and
introduces the challenging hurdle of morphology by quoting Coupland (1991) on
the definition of 'bambification' (66).

The following three chapters (Chapter 7, 'Grammar', Chapter 8, 'Syntax', and
Chapter 9, 'Semantics') build on the knowledge acquired from the previous
chapters and introduce some extremely basic concepts about these incredibly rich
and dense topics. The topic of Chapter 10 is pragmatics; this chapter includes
discussions of deixis, various forms of reference, speech acts, politeness
theory, and context, and is a fine example of a concise overview of these
topics. Chapter 11, 'Discourse Analysis', follows this model by introducing the
reader to topics such as cohesion, coherence, conversational analysis (including
a very detailed and well-exemplified discussion of the Gricean maxims,
turn-taking, hedges, and implicatures), and the notions of the usage of schemas
and scripts and their importance in conversational analysis.

The next three chapters: Chapter 12, 'Language and the Brain', Chapter 13,
'First Language Acquisition' (FLA), and Chapter 14, 'Second Language
Acquisition' (SLA), fall together quite nicely in terms of the information
blending seamlessly from one chapter into the other. The chapter on how
language and brain functions interact is a brief overview of biology,
psychology, and the intersection of linguistics with both of these topics, all
written very compactly and coherently. The sections in the chapter include
discussions on language areas in the brain, aphasia, the dichotic listening
test, the critical period hypothesis, and Genie. For Chapters 13 and 14, the
decision to maintain the distinction between discussions of FLA and SLA (unlike
many introductory linguistics texts) is one that benefits both teacher and
learner. The teacher using this text and the student acquiring the information
gain knowledge about acquisition vs. learning, the stages in the first language
(L1) acquisition schedule, the development of morphology and syntax in an L1,
and semantics in Chapter 13. In Chapter 14, one finds information about
acquisition barriers and aids, a brief history of the methods used in the
attempt to teach second languages, and a variety of processes undergone by
second language learners. Both chapters cover the most important basic concepts
in their fields, and provide many examples for students, who, for their part,
have experienced at least one of these types of acquisition of a language.

Chapter 15, 'Gestures and Sign Languages', includes very brief overview of
signed languages in general, and a more extensive yet still succinct history of
American Sign Language (ASL). The material in this chapter, although dated, is
accurate as concerns the formation, structure, and meanings of signs in ASL.
Chapter 16 is a discussion of writing systems of the world's languages, and
contains a short history of the evolution from pictograms to ideograms and
logograms. A discussion of syllabic and alphabetic writing systems make up the
remainder of this chapter.

The last four chapters of the book form a natural grouping. They include
Chapter 17, 'Language History and Change', Chapter 18, 'Language and Regional
Variety', and Chapter 19, 'Language and Social Variation', and Chapter 20,
'Language and Culture'. The language history chapter (Chapter 17) starts with a
short look at language change in general then moves to a description of English
in particular. The author includes a discussion of family trees, cognates, and
comparative reconstruction, then focuses in on a history of English: Old,
Middle, and Present-day English are discussed and exemplified, along with sound
changes, syntactic changes, and semantic changes in each stage. Chapter 18
tackles language and regional variation, and contains discussions of the
differences between accents, dialects, languages. Examples and explanation of
isoglosses and dialectology as a field are also given. In addition, the author
has included in this chapter topics that do not, on the surface, immediately
seem to apply to regional variation in its traditional sense: bilingualism and
diglossia, language planning, and pidgins and creoles. In chapter 19, the focus
shifts to sociolinguistic variables and their effects on language. Here one
finds discussions about social dialects, education and occupation, social
markers, prestige dialects, and registers and jargons. In addition, the last
part of the chapter contains a sound but brief look at African American English,
in which the author contrasts what he terms 'African American Vernacular
English' (AAVE) with ''what we might call 'European' American English''' (260). In
Chapter 20, 'Language and Culture', the author takes a shotgun approach to a
very broad subfield of linguistics; he discusses gender and gendered language,
categories, with examples from kinship terms and time concepts, linguistic
relativity, address terms, and cognitive categories, using classifiers to
illustrate his points.


The latest edition of this text contains the most extensive changes to date, and
all have served to make a good textbook even better. The major complaint about
this book in its previous iterations is that the book is too simple, too short,
and is essentially linguistics 'lite'. There is merit to that claim, but the
text serves as one of the best, if not the best, book for many linguists who are
in programs in which they may be the only instructor, or at least in the
minority, and who therefore have many students who do not plan to major in
linguistics. For that reason, the book is eminently valuable in terms of a
general overview of the field of linguistics, and is accessible to people with
no background whatsoever in the field. On a very practical note, due to its
size, the publisher and author have managed to keep the cost of the book down;
it is cheap, valuable, and useful as a text.

One major defect of the book to date has been the lack of a supporting website;
that has been addressed to some degree with this newest edition. This website,
found at, although very minimalist (much like the book)
contains suggested answers for the Study Questions and the Tasks following each
chapter. In the previous editions, the Study Question answers were given in the
back of the text, meaning that students who were required to complete them for
homework just copied them, while the Tasks, the most important part of the
post-chapter material insofar as testing students' knowledge of the material,
had no answers (suggested or not) provided at all. The addition of the suggested
answers contained on a website makes the book much more attractive to potential
users. The website also contains the figures found in each chapter, and
reproduces the glossary found at the end of the text. It should also have
included the 'Further Reading' lists found at the end of each chapter; these
concise bibliographies focus very specifically on the issues discussed within
each chapter, and a list of them and a link to other resources would have been
extremely helpful.

In the previous editions, the physical placement of the chapters on the
development of writing (renamed 'Writing' in the new edition) and gestures and
sign languages have been problematic. In this edition, the chapter on writing
has been moved to a place which enables it to be more seamlessly integrated into
the flow of a semester, but the chapter about sign languages (which is in fact a
discourse about ASL) does not belong in this book at all. The information is
dated and uninteresting, and does not do credit to this language code. It would
be as useful to include a chapter entitled 'French', or 'Spanish', and expect
students to understand the language.

Lastly, anyone looking for any theoretical discussion about any of the topics in
the book will be disappointed. They do not exist, but this seeming negative is
what makes the book so appropriate for its intended audience; a group of people
who may or may not continue linguistic study, but who are interested in learning
more about language and languages in general, in terms that they can understand,
with examples that they can relate to. It is the perfect textbook for the many
linguists outside of linguistics departments who are teaching an introductory

Given that, the merits of the book far outweigh the negatives. One important
point in particular has been touched on repeatedly in this review: the book is
concise, thorough, and succinct. It is also extremely well-written.
Pedagogically speaking, the final paragraphs of each chapter introduce the
upcoming chapter so well that they should be used as both a preview and a review
of the material being covered. It is difficult to express how much information
this author covers in so few words, while being so informative. There is no
fluff in this book; every single sentence counts, every word is important. This
style of writing gives the book its major strength and gives the instructor of
the class an impressive amount of flexibility. If s/he chooses to expand on the
basic, yet thorough, information in each chapter, the suggested readings, along
with the instructor's knowledge and interest enable that. The length of the
book and the chapters therein also lend themselves very nicely to a
semester-long course, meaning that the teacher does not have to rush instruction
in order to 'cover all the material' in the text. The flip side of that coin is
that, although the brevity of the chapters is appealing to students, it is also
misleading, since students typically count how many pages they have to read for
each assignment. The average number of pages is nine in this text; the amount of
information contained within each would take up three times that amount in other
introductory linguistics textbooks. Given that, this book is perfect for
instructors who are very familiar with the material presented in the text, and
for students who are interested in a general overview of the topic of linguistics.


Bryson, B. (1994). Made in America. William Morrow Press.

Coupland, D. (1991). Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. St.
Martin's Press.

Sedaris, D. (2000). Me Talk Pretty One Day. Little Brown Press.

Megan E. Melancon is an associate professor at Georgia College and State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Sociolinguistics at Louisiana State University. Her research interests include Cajun French, Louisiana Creole French, Georgia (USA) speech, American Sign Language, Second Language Acquisition studies, and Genomics and Linguistics. Her most recent co-authored publication is 'Using Critical Literacy to Explore Genetics and its Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues with In-service Secondary Teachers' (CBE-Life Sciences Education).

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