LINGUIST List 21.3452|
Sun Aug 29 2010
Review: General Linguistics: Akmajian et al. (2010)
Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay
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Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication
Message 1: Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication
From: Marissa Fond <mjf72georgetown.edu>
Subject: Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication
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AUTHORS: Akmajian, Adrian; Demers, Richard A.; Farmer, Ann K.; Harnish, Robert M.
SUBTITLE: An Introduction to Language and Communication (Sixth Edition)
PUBLISHER: MIT Press
Marissa Fond, Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University
The goal of this introductory textbook is to review basic concepts in
linguistics so that beginning students will become familiar with some of the
field's main questions and the research methods used to answer them. The content
of the textbook is divided into two parts: the first, ''The Structure of Human
Language'', concentrates on the individual components of linguistic systems and
demonstrates the ways in which they are all interdependent; the second,
''Communication and Cognitive Science'', explores different aspects of language
use from a cognitive perspective. Each chapter within these two parts covers
several subthemes and ends with a section called ''Special Topics'', in which
subjects that were not introduced in the chapter (or were touched on very
briefly) are discussed in more detail. These are followed by study questions and
exercises, reading lists for the chapter and the special topics sections, a list
of journals pertinent to the subfield, and a bibliography.
Part 1 begins with an introductory chapter (Chapter 1) which defines the scope
of the field of linguistics and then describes the goals of the textbook in
terms of Chomsky's competence, performance, and language acquisition models.
Part 1 discusses linguistic competence, or the nature and structure (grammar) of
human language, beginning with the structure of a word.
Chapter 2 (Morphology) launches into an analysis of the unit of the word. The
authors acknowledge that opening with a morphology chapter is perhaps not
traditional in a linguistics textbook, but they claim that this allows for a
more engaging, accessible introduction to the various subfields of theoretical
linguistics, particularly for students with little experience reflecting on the
structure of language. So with the goal of providing a broad introduction, the
chapter begins by outlining the information that we as language users know when
we know a word, and then it guides the reader through some questions in
phonetics (How do sounds combine to form words?), morphological structure (What
are morphemes?), syntax (How do words combine to form phrases?), semantics (How
do words have meaning?), and pragmatics (How are words used for different
communicative purposes in conversation?). Special topics for this chapter
include complex words, compounds, anaphora and derivational morphology. Due to
its role as both introduction and morphology chapter, this chapter is one of the
longest of the textbook.
Chapter 3 (Phonetics and Phonemic Transcription) covers aspects of sounds,
beginning with basic anatomy and physiology and continuing with a review of
place and manner of articulation for the sounds of American English. Also
covered in this chapter are the differences between orthography and phonemic
transcription, as well as a discussion of the formation of the English plural in
which three hypotheses are presented and evaluated step by step to allow the
reader to follow along. Special topics include vowels before ''r'' in American
English, contractions, and consonant clusters.
Chapter 4 (Phonology) outlines the SPE (''The Sound Pattern of English''; Chomsky
and Halle 1968) distinctive feature system. The chapter returns to the
discussion of the English plural from Chapter 3 in order to reexamine the
hypothesis within the framework of SPE. The second half of the chapter provides
a very extensive review of syllable structure and how it relates to stress. The
special topic for this chapter is word-level tone contours of English.
Chapter 5 (Syntax) introduces the idea of hierarchical sentence structure using
the example of question formation in English. In the discussion of an informal
and then a formal account of transformational grammar, the chapter guides the
reader through the process of forming a hypothesis, testing it, and revising it
after the counterexamples provided suggest that doing so is necessary. Some of
the other concepts covered include constituents and constituency tests, parts of
speech, tree diagrams, structural ambiguity, and movement. WH-movement and
dependencies, as well as a brief introduction to Chomsky's Minimalist Program
(Chomsky, 1995) are covered in the special topics section.
Chapter 6 (Semantics) opens with a discussion of how semantics and grammar
interact. It goes on to review various theories of meaning and meaning
relations, with particular emphasis on truth-conditional semantics. The special
topics section, which constitutes a larger portion of this chapter compared to
some others, includes mood and modality, deixis and proper names, definite
descriptions, natural kinds, anaphora and coreference, and character and content.
Chapter 7 (Language Variation) illustrates the concept of dialects through
examples of lexical variation in American English, and introduces variationist
research with examples from Labov's (1969) work on African American English as
well as his well-known study of New York City ''r''-lessness (1972). Because the
chapter is included in the part of the textbook covering the structure of
language, the topics mostly focus on systematic structural differences across
languages or dialects; however, it also touches on register, conversation,
slang, code switching, and other varieties of English, and discusses social
concerns such as perceptions of ''standard'' and ''nonstandard'' language. There is
no special topics section in this chapter.
Finally, Chapter 8 (Language Change) talks about the origins of language and the
historical development of language families, with special concentration on
Indo-European languages and the history of English. Special topics include an
introduction to language families of the world and their connections to each other.
While the structure of language was discussed in Part 1, in Part 2 the focus
shifts from competence to Chomsky's other two models: performance and language
acquisition. It begins with pragmatics, a subfield that was briefly touched on
in many of the preceding chapters.
Chapter 9 (Pragmatics) discusses the strengths and weaknesses of two theories of
language use and utterance interpretation: first, a theory that the authors call
the Message Model and describe as a model of cognition, and second, the
Inferential Model, which includes some elements of Grice's Cooperative Principle
(1975). (This is covered explicitly in the special topics section). These two
general theories are debated in the text, and the authors describe how research
in cognitive science will be critical to determining how inference works. After
this discussion, the chapter moves on to briefly cover discourse analysis (or
the structure of conversations, including openings/closings and turntaking)
before the extensive special topics section, which includes performativity,
speech act theory, implicature, and neo-Gricean pragmatics.
Chapter 10 (Psychology of Language: Speech Production and Comprehension) reviews
performance models and speech production, illustrated with examples of speech
and hearing errors. Then a section on comprehension, which is the largest
portion of the chapter, covers modularity, lexical access, garden path
sentences, disambiguation, and experimental pragmatics among other topics. The
special topics include the McGurk Effect, empty categories, and connectionist
Chapter 11 (Language Acquisition in Children) reviews the early stages of
language development, and discusses typical phonological, morphological,
syntactic, and pragmatic development in children. The chapter also presents
evidence for the language acquisition device and the critical period, which is
further illustrated by a description of the famous case of Genie. The chapter
goes on to ask whether humans are unique in their capacity for acquiring
language, and data on Washoe and other primates are discussed. In keeping with
the Chomskyan orientation of the textbook, the special topic for this chapter is
a discussion of principles and parameters and how they relate to child language.
Chapter 12 (Language and the Brain) reviews basic neuroanatomy and the
localization of language in the brain, followed by a discussion of how language
is processed and produced. The discussion ends with a brief review of aphasia.
Special topics include imaging techniques (PET and fMRI), a brief discussion of
Japanese orthography and agraphia, and the FOXP2 gene.
Lastly, there is an appendix which reviews a variety of writing systems, and a
One of this textbook's clearest strengths is in its organization, which is well
suited to both students and instructors. First, the division of the content into
''language'' (structure) and ''communication'' (cognition) sets up the field of
linguistics in a way that introduces the reader to concepts in theoretical
linguistics that will be important background for more advanced study, and to
topics in the intersection between language and cognition that give the reader a
sense of how language can be studied in a variety of contexts. Second, on the
level of the individual chapter, there are many thoughtful organizational
details that make the textbook easy to use in a variety of class formats. The
chapters and subsections, while integrated into a coherent whole, are
self-contained enough to allow the instructor to tailor the content to the goals
and interests of the class; in fact, Part 1 alone could form the backbone of a
course, with supplemental units and materials provided by instructors who might
want to take a different approach to pragmatics and discourse, or focus on
sociolinguistics or second language instruction instead of cognitive science.
But even if the instructor chooses to follow the textbook closely, the special
topics included after each chapter provide opportunities for the instructor to
incorporate additional material into each unit, or perhaps to repurpose these
short readings as background for homework assignments or projects. Following the
special topics, after the conclusion of each chapter, there are additional
resources provided. The ''Further Reading'' section provides general information
on the state of each subfield (and the special topics) and briefly explains to
the reader how these vast bodies of literature can best be approached. Finally,
each chapter ends with a list of journals where research in the field is most
commonly published, as well as a bibliography. These extra features are welcome
additions, especially for students who might be required to undertake original
research projects; having this resource for students to consult independently
before approaching the instructor could be very helpful to newcomers to both
linguistics and in some cases, research. To this end, the journal lists could be
lengthened and diversified even further (''Language'' is listed as a resource in
over half of the chapters, and the list for Chapter 6 ''Semantics'' includes only
The other main conceptual decisions that the authors make are successful. First,
beginning the textbook with a chapter on morphology makes sense here and the
material is integrated well into the chapters that follow. It can be challenging
for students to grasp the details of the sound structure of language and to
identify their intuitions when this is their first exposure to linguistics; so
introducing them to questions in morphology in an engaging and intuitive way,
with many creative examples, sets up a context that makes the chapters that
follow seem more grounded in questions that the students have already been
exposed to. Second, providing most of the examples in English is, for the most
part, practical. The authors note in the introduction that they made a conscious
decision to focus on examples in (American) English so that students could draw
upon their intuitions as native speakers to evaluate the concepts that are
discussed in the text and be equipped to interact with the material right from
the start. This decision is largely successful, particularly in the chapters
that cover language variation, pragmatics, and language processing; it is
slightly less so in the phonetics chapter, and so more examples from other
languages are included in order to make comparisons. (For example, there is a
discussion of the reasons why English speakers learning Spanish or Italian often
pronounce tense vowels as diphthongs.) Since many students are drawn to
linguistics as a result of having studied foreign languages, it would be
beneficial for instructors to include material from the textbook's supplement,
''A Linguistics Workbook: Companion to Linguistics, Sixth Edition''. This way,
instructors could use examples and activities that are most relevant to the
interests and experiences of the class. This component is important to include
because topics such as language variation, first and second language
acquisition, and language change, among others, rely on a solid understanding of
the possible sounds of language. That said, the textbook's treatment of English
is admirable, as is clear in the section on vowels before ''r''; this is a very
welcome description of a phenomenon that can be vexing for students new to
phonetics and transcription.
Regarding the overall layout and tone of the textbook, the layout is clear and
quite straightforward, though it could benefit from presenting some information
graphically rather than in prose; for example, in Chapter 7 where the results of
Labov's (1972) department store study are written up over two paragraphs, the
figures and their relationships might be clearer if they were shown in a graph.
There are a number of opportunities throughout the textbook to include visuals
to help explain complex concepts, and the addition of more graphs, tables,
and/or figures would not distract from the tone of the textbook, which is
already excellent. The tone is very accessible and appealing, with lucid and
well-structured prose that is liberally sprinkled with helpful examples. It
also, however, clearly respects the reader, and challenges new students of
linguistics to not only look upon familiar phenomena from a new perspective (for
example, why the sentence ''She visited a little girl's school'' is ambiguous),
but to become engaged with the theories of transformational syntax (for example,
raising and control verbs) and new ideas in cognitive science, as well as to
become well-versed in argumentation and hypothesis testing. Owing to the tone
and the content covered, this textbook would be an excellent choice for both
introductory undergraduate- and graduate-level courses.
Chomsky, N., and M. Halle. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harper
Chomsky, N. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Grice, H. P. 1975. Logic and conversation. In P. Cole and J. L. Morgan, eds.,
Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3: Speech Acts, pp. 41-58. New York: Academic Press.
Labov, W. 1969. Contraction, deletion, and inherent variability of the English
copula. Language 45, 715-762.
Labov, W. 1972. The social stratification of (r) in New York City department
stores. In Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Marissa Fond received a BA in linguistics and Spanish from Smith College and an MS in linguistics from Georgetown University. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in linguistics at Georgetown.
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