LINGUIST List 21.3271

Sat Aug 14 2010

Review: General Linguistics: Yule (2010)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

        1.    Megan Melancon, The Study of Language

Message 1: The Study of Language
Date: 14-Aug-2010
From: Megan Melancon <>
Subject: The Study of Language
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AUTHOR: Yule, GeorgeTITLE: The Study of LanguagePUBLISHER: Cambridge University PressYEAR: 2010

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


This book is an introductory textbook designed for beginners and thoseinterested in the field of linguistics in general. It covers all the majorsubfields of linguistics in an engaging and informative manner, withoutoverwhelming the reader with technical terms. This newest edition of the text(the 4th) comprises twenty chapters, all of which are written in extremelyreadable prose with examples and explanations for new and important concepts inthe field of linguistics. Each chapter follows the same format: quotations,current issues, jokes, anecdotes, and current uses of language introduce eachone (in the chapter on Second Language Acquisition, for example, the author usesa passage from David Sedaris, 2000, in which Sedaris discusses his difficulty inexplaining the concept of Easter, in French, to his French teacher). The authorthen follows each of these blurbs with a brief discussion about how it appliesto the material in the chapter. The major headings within each chapter areclearly 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 chaptersthemselves. These sections contain Study Questions, Tasks, Discussiontopics/projects, and further reading suggestions. The Study Questions aresimple memorization and regurgitation exercises, while the Tasks and Discussiontopics/projects sections build on the information presented in each chapter.They go far beyond simple memorization of concepts and terms, and enable theinstructor to branch out into areas in which students seem to need moreinstruction, thereby challenging students to perform linguistically-based tasksand 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 adiscussion of the most recent research on genetics and language. Chapter 2,entitled 'Animals and Human Language', has information about the early studiesdone 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'), andphonology ('The Sound Patterns of Language'). The two chapters are, of course,at the heart of any linguistics course, and the explanations of the concepts andterms dealing with these subjects are clear and succinct. Chapters 5 and 6,entitled 'Word Formation' and 'Morphology', respectively, deal with those twosubjects in a compendious manner. The examples in these two chapters, inparticular, are extremely current, and are therefore appealing to a generalaudience. For example, the author quotes Bill Bryson (1994) discussing theorigin of the word 'Santa Claus' in the introduction to Word Formation (52), andintroduces the challenging hurdle of morphology by quoting Coupland (1991) onthe definition of 'bambification' (66).

The following three chapters (Chapter 7, 'Grammar', Chapter 8, 'Syntax', andChapter 9, 'Semantics') build on the knowledge acquired from the previouschapters and introduce some extremely basic concepts about these incredibly richand dense topics. The topic of Chapter 10 is pragmatics; this chapter includesdiscussions of deixis, various forms of reference, speech acts, politenesstheory, and context, and is a fine example of a concise overview of thesetopics. Chapter 11, 'Discourse Analysis', follows this model by introducing thereader to topics such as cohesion, coherence, conversational analysis (includinga very detailed and well-exemplified discussion of the Gricean maxims,turn-taking, hedges, and implicatures), and the notions of the usage of schemasand 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 LanguageAcquisition' (SLA), fall together quite nicely in terms of the informationblending seamlessly from one chapter into the other. The chapter on howlanguage and brain functions interact is a brief overview of biology,psychology, and the intersection of linguistics with both of these topics, allwritten very compactly and coherently. The sections in the chapter includediscussions on language areas in the brain, aphasia, the dichotic listeningtest, the critical period hypothesis, and Genie. For Chapters 13 and 14, thedecision to maintain the distinction between discussions of FLA and SLA (unlikemany introductory linguistics texts) is one that benefits both teacher andlearner. The teacher using this text and the student acquiring the informationgain 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 aboutacquisition barriers and aids, a brief history of the methods used in theattempt to teach second languages, and a variety of processes undergone bysecond language learners. Both chapters cover the most important basic conceptsin 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 ofsigned languages in general, and a more extensive yet still succinct history ofAmerican Sign Language (ASL). The material in this chapter, although dated, isaccurate as concerns the formation, structure, and meanings of signs in ASL.Chapter 16 is a discussion of writing systems of the world's languages, andcontains a short history of the evolution from pictograms to ideograms andlogograms. A discussion of syllabic and alphabetic writing systems make up theremainder of this chapter.

The last four chapters of the book form a natural grouping. They includeChapter 17, 'Language History and Change', Chapter 18, 'Language and RegionalVariety', and Chapter 19, 'Language and Social Variation', and Chapter 20,'Language and Culture'. The language history chapter (Chapter 17) starts with ashort look at language change in general then moves to a description of Englishin particular. The author includes a discussion of family trees, cognates, andcomparative reconstruction, then focuses in on a history of English: Old,Middle, and Present-day English are discussed and exemplified, along with soundchanges, syntactic changes, and semantic changes in each stage. Chapter 18tackles language and regional variation, and contains discussions of thedifferences between accents, dialects, languages. Examples and explanation ofisoglosses and dialectology as a field are also given. In addition, the authorhas included in this chapter topics that do not, on the surface, immediatelyseem to apply to regional variation in its traditional sense: bilingualism anddiglossia, language planning, and pidgins and creoles. In chapter 19, the focusshifts to sociolinguistic variables and their effects on language. Here onefinds discussions about social dialects, education and occupation, socialmarkers, prestige dialects, and registers and jargons. In addition, the lastpart of the chapter contains a sound but brief look at African American English,in which the author contrasts what he terms 'African American VernacularEnglish' (AAVE) with ''what we might call 'European' American English''' (260). InChapter 20, 'Language and Culture', the author takes a shotgun approach to avery broad subfield of linguistics; he discusses gender and gendered language,categories, with examples from kinship terms and time concepts, linguisticrelativity, address terms, and cognitive categories, using classifiers toillustrate his points.


The latest edition of this text contains the most extensive changes to date, andall have served to make a good textbook even better. The major complaint aboutthis 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 thetext serves as one of the best, if not the best, book for many linguists who arein programs in which they may be the only instructor, or at least in theminority, and who therefore have many students who do not plan to major inlinguistics. For that reason, the book is eminently valuable in terms of ageneral overview of the field of linguistics, and is accessible to people withno background whatsoever in the field. On a very practical note, due to itssize, 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 eachchapter. In the previous editions, the Study Question answers were given in theback of the text, meaning that students who were required to complete them forhomework just copied them, while the Tasks, the most important part of thepost-chapter material insofar as testing students' knowledge of the material,had no answers (suggested or not) provided at all. The addition of the suggestedanswers contained on a website makes the book much more attractive to potentialusers. The website also contains the figures found in each chapter, andreproduces the glossary found at the end of the text. It should also haveincluded the 'Further Reading' lists found at the end of each chapter; theseconcise bibliographies focus very specifically on the issues discussed withineach chapter, and a list of them and a link to other resources would have beenextremely helpful.

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

Lastly, anyone looking for any theoretical discussion about any of the topics inthe book will be disappointed. They do not exist, but this seeming negative iswhat makes the book so appropriate for its intended audience; a group of peoplewho may or may not continue linguistic study, but who are interested in learningmore 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 manylinguists outside of linguistics departments who are teaching an introductorycourse.

Given that, the merits of the book far outweigh the negatives. One importantpoint in particular has been touched on repeatedly in this review: the book isconcise, thorough, and succinct. It is also extremely well-written.Pedagogically speaking, the final paragraphs of each chapter introduce theupcoming chapter so well that they should be used as both a preview and a reviewof the material being covered. It is difficult to express how much informationthis author covers in so few words, while being so informative. There is nofluff in this book; every single sentence counts, every word is important. Thisstyle of writing gives the book its major strength and gives the instructor ofthe class an impressive amount of flexibility. If s/he chooses to expand on thebasic, yet thorough, information in each chapter, the suggested readings, alongwith the instructor's knowledge and interest enable that. The length of thebook and the chapters therein also lend themselves very nicely to asemester-long course, meaning that the teacher does not have to rush instructionin order to 'cover all the material' in the text. The flip side of that coin isthat, although the brevity of the chapters is appealing to students, it is alsomisleading, since students typically count how many pages they have to read foreach assignment. The average number of pages is nine in this text; the amount ofinformation contained within each would take up three times that amount in otherintroductory linguistics textbooks. Given that, this book is perfect forinstructors who are very familiar with the material presented in the text, andfor 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).

Page Updated: 14-Aug-2010