LINGUIST List 18.433

Thu Feb 08 2007

Review: General Linguistics: Parkvall (2006)

Editor for this issue: Laura Welcher <>

Directory         1.    Alejandrina Cristia, Limits of Language

Message 1: Limits of Language
Date: 08-Feb-2007
From: Alejandrina Cristia <>
Subject: Limits of Language

Announced at AUTHOR(S): Parkvall, MikaelTITLE: Limits of LanguageSUBTITLE: Almost everything you didn't know you didn't know about languageand languagesPUBLISHER: BattlebridgeYEAR: 2006

Alejandrina Cristia, Linguistics, Purdue University.


Limits of Language comprises a collection of facts, comments andspeculations on nearly every aspect of language, from morphology tosociolinguistics. Instead of attempting an impossible summary, I haveincluded the detailed index, which provides a sense of the variety oftopics discussed, as an appendix to this review.

In each section at least a dozen examples of language-related uses andstories, as well as odd characteristics of particular languages are putforth. For instance, the diverse subsections of 'Language learning'comprise notes on how feral children have (not) learned to speak;surprising (and sometimes unsettling) sentences from phrasebooks, such as'Put your hands over your head!' (from a Somali phrasebook) (p. 113); andshort biographies of famous polyglots.

The book also abounds in tables, maps and graphs. For example, the 17 pagesof 'big and small languages' include 15 tables (for instance, detailing anestimation of the total number of first- and second-language speakers oflanguages that have a high proportion of second-language users), fivegraphs (such as one representing the top ten languages used in films), andtwo maps schematizing the geographic spread of some languages. There arealso numerous pictures, including one of the three degrees of lip roundingin Scandinavian languages, as demonstrated by a native speaker (p. 211).


Limits of Language was intended as a ''Guinness Book'' of languages andlinguistics, with the dual aim of showing some fascinating aspects oflanguages to a wider readership as well as serving as a reference book forlinguists where they can determine the limits of language. Having sharedsome of the book with a few non-linguists, I trust the first goal was met.Limits of Language is an enjoyable and informative cruise around theworld's languages. But for the linguistic audience, the question remains --has the second objective been met?

First of all, it should be noted that -- as Parkvall himself acknowledges-- a book containing data on over a thousand languages is bound to containsome mistakes. However, if readers should be skeptical of or curious aboutany one statement, they can follow up on the carefully detailed sources atthe end of each section.

Nevertheless, I believe it is not as much the particular facts presentedthat will mesmerize the linguistic audience. In fact, one could argue that,within each linguistic subdiscipline, what is considered extreme depends onone's theoretical viewpoint. The author takes note of this, pointing outwhen a particular statement is the matter of debate (e.g. whetherMarshallese has 3 or 24 vowels; p. 211). Thus, one may happily exerciseone's linguistic dogmatism by dissecting such assertions, with a view toreducing the kaleidoscopic complexity sometimes attributed to particularlanguage systems. While one can disagree with some of the statements madein the book, it is impossible to ignore the richness of languages, ofLanguage perhaps, reflected in this text.

This richness and diversity emerges, page after page, illuminating themultifaceted nature of Language, which is subject to the pressures ofhistory, society, the human body and mind. Linguists, each working on atiny portion of this fabulously intricate construct, have only begun tounravel it. Limits of Language should serve as a reminder of all thoseaspects we necessarily disregard in our daily work. Fortunately, thereminder comes in the form of a great book.

APPENDIX: Table of Contents

Language in society Language variation and registers for special occasions Language geography Language as a legal matter Language planning Using more than one language Languages in contact Language death and revivalBig and small languagesLanguage history Language change Language families Spectacular spread Language in alternate historyWritten languageSigned languagesLanguage learning Learning your first language Second-language learning PolyglotsNon-humans and languageArtificial languagesForensic linguisticsPopular conceptions The subjective approach Language mythsLanguage and identity Pragmatics Language and genderLexicon How many words are there? Long and short words Having a word for it Dictionaries Common words Coining new words Colour terms Personal names Place names GlossonymsSpeech sounds Consonants Vowels and diphthongs Syllable structure SuprasegmentalsArchitecture of languages Parts of speech Verbs Nouns Adjectives Adverbs Adpositions Articles Demonstratives Personal pronouns Numerals Negation Case Gender and noun classes Number Tense, mood and aspect Voice Morphology Suppletion SentencesLinguists and their discipline Linguistics departments Most studied languages Experimentation in linguistics Some work that didn't stand the test of time Linguists Linguistic terminology Classic example sentences The linguist's guide to the galaxyThe Linguist's calendar


Alejandrina Cristia is a Ph.D. student of linguistics at Purdue University.Her research interests include the contribution of universal grammar tolanguage acquisition, especially in the area of phonology.