LINGUIST List 21.3452

Sun Aug 29 2010

Review: General Linguistics: Akmajian et al. (2010)

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        1.    Marissa Fond, Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication

Message 1: Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication
Date: 29-Aug-2010
From: Marissa Fond <>
Subject: Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication
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AUTHORS: Akmajian, Adrian; Demers, Richard A.; Farmer, Ann K.; Harnish, Robert M.TITLE: LinguisticsSUBTITLE: An Introduction to Language and Communication (Sixth Edition)PUBLISHER: MIT PressYEAR: 2010

Marissa Fond, Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University


The goal of this introductory textbook is to review basic concepts inlinguistics so that beginning students will become familiar with some of thefield's main questions and the research methods used to answer them. The contentof the textbook is divided into two parts: the first, ''The Structure of HumanLanguage'', concentrates on the individual components of linguistic systems anddemonstrates the ways in which they are all interdependent; the second,''Communication and Cognitive Science'', explores different aspects of languageuse from a cognitive perspective. Each chapter within these two parts coversseveral subthemes and ends with a section called ''Special Topics'', in whichsubjects that were not introduced in the chapter (or were touched on verybriefly) are discussed in more detail. These are followed by study questions andexercises, reading lists for the chapter and the special topics sections, a listof journals pertinent to the subfield, and a bibliography.

Part 1 begins with an introductory chapter (Chapter 1) which defines the scopeof the field of linguistics and then describes the goals of the textbook interms of Chomsky's competence, performance, and language acquisition models.Part 1 discusses linguistic competence, or the nature and structure (grammar) ofhuman language, beginning with the structure of a word.

Chapter 2 (Morphology) launches into an analysis of the unit of the word. Theauthors acknowledge that opening with a morphology chapter is perhaps nottraditional in a linguistics textbook, but they claim that this allows for amore engaging, accessible introduction to the various subfields of theoreticallinguistics, particularly for students with little experience reflecting on thestructure of language. So with the goal of providing a broad introduction, thechapter begins by outlining the information that we as language users know whenwe know a word, and then it guides the reader through some questions inphonetics (How do sounds combine to form words?), morphological structure (Whatare morphemes?), syntax (How do words combine to form phrases?), semantics (Howdo words have meaning?), and pragmatics (How are words used for differentcommunicative purposes in conversation?). Special topics for this chapterinclude complex words, compounds, anaphora and derivational morphology. Due toits role as both introduction and morphology chapter, this chapter is one of thelongest of the textbook.

Chapter 3 (Phonetics and Phonemic Transcription) covers aspects of sounds,beginning with basic anatomy and physiology and continuing with a review ofplace and manner of articulation for the sounds of American English. Alsocovered in this chapter are the differences between orthography and phonemictranscription, as well as a discussion of the formation of the English plural inwhich three hypotheses are presented and evaluated step by step to allow thereader to follow along. Special topics include vowels before ''r'' in AmericanEnglish, contractions, and consonant clusters.

Chapter 4 (Phonology) outlines the SPE (''The Sound Pattern of English''; Chomskyand Halle 1968) distinctive feature system. The chapter returns to thediscussion of the English plural from Chapter 3 in order to reexamine thehypothesis within the framework of SPE. The second half of the chapter providesa very extensive review of syllable structure and how it relates to stress. Thespecial topic for this chapter is word-level tone contours of English.

Chapter 5 (Syntax) introduces the idea of hierarchical sentence structure usingthe example of question formation in English. In the discussion of an informaland then a formal account of transformational grammar, the chapter guides thereader through the process of forming a hypothesis, testing it, and revising itafter the counterexamples provided suggest that doing so is necessary. Some ofthe other concepts covered include constituents and constituency tests, parts ofspeech, tree diagrams, structural ambiguity, and movement. WH-movement anddependencies, 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 grammarinteract. It goes on to review various theories of meaning and meaningrelations, with particular emphasis on truth-conditional semantics. The specialtopics section, which constitutes a larger portion of this chapter compared tosome others, includes mood and modality, deixis and proper names, definitedescriptions, natural kinds, anaphora and coreference, and character and content.

Chapter 7 (Language Variation) illustrates the concept of dialects throughexamples of lexical variation in American English, and introduces variationistresearch with examples from Labov's (1969) work on African American English aswell as his well-known study of New York City ''r''-lessness (1972). Because thechapter is included in the part of the textbook covering the structure oflanguage, the topics mostly focus on systematic structural differences acrosslanguages or dialects; however, it also touches on register, conversation,slang, code switching, and other varieties of English, and discusses socialconcerns such as perceptions of ''standard'' and ''nonstandard'' language. There isno special topics section in this chapter.

Finally, Chapter 8 (Language Change) talks about the origins of language and thehistorical development of language families, with special concentration onIndo-European languages and the history of English. Special topics include anintroduction 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 focusshifts from competence to Chomsky's other two models: performance and languageacquisition. It begins with pragmatics, a subfield that was briefly touched onin many of the preceding chapters.

Chapter 9 (Pragmatics) discusses the strengths and weaknesses of two theories oflanguage use and utterance interpretation: first, a theory that the authors callthe Message Model and describe as a model of cognition, and second, theInferential Model, which includes some elements of Grice's Cooperative Principle(1975). (This is covered explicitly in the special topics section). These twogeneral theories are debated in the text, and the authors describe how researchin cognitive science will be critical to determining how inference works. Afterthis discussion, the chapter moves on to briefly cover discourse analysis (orthe 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) reviewsperformance models and speech production, illustrated with examples of speechand hearing errors. Then a section on comprehension, which is the largestportion of the chapter, covers modularity, lexical access, garden pathsentences, disambiguation, and experimental pragmatics among other topics. Thespecial topics include the McGurk Effect, empty categories, and connectionistmodels.

Chapter 11 (Language Acquisition in Children) reviews the early stages oflanguage development, and discusses typical phonological, morphological,syntactic, and pragmatic development in children. The chapter also presentsevidence for the language acquisition device and the critical period, which isfurther illustrated by a description of the famous case of Genie. The chaptergoes on to ask whether humans are unique in their capacity for acquiringlanguage, and data on Washoe and other primates are discussed. In keeping withthe Chomskyan orientation of the textbook, the special topic for this chapter isa discussion of principles and parameters and how they relate to child language.

Chapter 12 (Language and the Brain) reviews basic neuroanatomy and thelocalization of language in the brain, followed by a discussion of how languageis processed and produced. The discussion ends with a brief review of aphasia.Special topics include imaging techniques (PET and fMRI), a brief discussion ofJapanese orthography and agraphia, and the FOXP2 gene.

Lastly, there is an appendix which reviews a variety of writing systems, and aglossary.


One of this textbook's clearest strengths is in its organization, which is wellsuited to both students and instructors. First, the division of the content into''language'' (structure) and ''communication'' (cognition) sets up the field oflinguistics in a way that introduces the reader to concepts in theoreticallinguistics that will be important background for more advanced study, and totopics in the intersection between language and cognition that give the reader asense of how language can be studied in a variety of contexts. Second, on thelevel of the individual chapter, there are many thoughtful organizationaldetails that make the textbook easy to use in a variety of class formats. Thechapters and subsections, while integrated into a coherent whole, areself-contained enough to allow the instructor to tailor the content to the goalsand interests of the class; in fact, Part 1 alone could form the backbone of acourse, with supplemental units and materials provided by instructors who mightwant to take a different approach to pragmatics and discourse, or focus onsociolinguistics or second language instruction instead of cognitive science.But even if the instructor chooses to follow the textbook closely, the specialtopics included after each chapter provide opportunities for the instructor toincorporate additional material into each unit, or perhaps to repurpose theseshort readings as background for homework assignments or projects. Following thespecial topics, after the conclusion of each chapter, there are additionalresources provided. The ''Further Reading'' section provides general informationon the state of each subfield (and the special topics) and briefly explains tothe 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 mostcommonly published, as well as a bibliography. These extra features are welcomeadditions, especially for students who might be required to undertake originalresearch projects; having this resource for students to consult independentlybefore approaching the instructor could be very helpful to newcomers to bothlinguistics and in some cases, research. To this end, the journal lists could belengthened and diversified even further (''Language'' is listed as a resource inover half of the chapters, and the list for Chapter 6 ''Semantics'' includes onlytwo journals).

The other main conceptual decisions that the authors make are successful. First,beginning the textbook with a chapter on morphology makes sense here and thematerial is integrated well into the chapters that follow. It can be challengingfor students to grasp the details of the sound structure of language and toidentify their intuitions when this is their first exposure to linguistics; sointroducing them to questions in morphology in an engaging and intuitive way,with many creative examples, sets up a context that makes the chapters thatfollow seem more grounded in questions that the students have already beenexposed to. Second, providing most of the examples in English is, for the mostpart, practical. The authors note in the introduction that they made a consciousdecision to focus on examples in (American) English so that students could drawupon their intuitions as native speakers to evaluate the concepts that arediscussed in the text and be equipped to interact with the material right fromthe start. This decision is largely successful, particularly in the chaptersthat cover language variation, pragmatics, and language processing; it isslightly less so in the phonetics chapter, and so more examples from otherlanguages are included in order to make comparisons. (For example, there is adiscussion of the reasons why English speakers learning Spanish or Italian oftenpronounce tense vowels as diphthongs.) Since many students are drawn tolinguistics as a result of having studied foreign languages, it would bebeneficial 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 theinterests and experiences of the class. This component is important to includebecause topics such as language variation, first and second languageacquisition, and language change, among others, rely on a solid understanding ofthe possible sounds of language. That said, the textbook's treatment of Englishis admirable, as is clear in the section on vowels before ''r''; this is a verywelcome description of a phenomenon that can be vexing for students new tophonetics and transcription.

Regarding the overall layout and tone of the textbook, the layout is clear andquite straightforward, though it could benefit from presenting some informationgraphically rather than in prose; for example, in Chapter 7 where the results ofLabov's (1972) department store study are written up over two paragraphs, thefigures and their relationships might be clearer if they were shown in a graph.There are a number of opportunities throughout the textbook to include visualsto help explain complex concepts, and the addition of more graphs, tables,and/or figures would not distract from the tone of the textbook, which isalready excellent. The tone is very accessible and appealing, with lucid andwell-structured prose that is liberally sprinkled with helpful examples. Italso, however, clearly respects the reader, and challenges new students oflinguistics to not only look upon familiar phenomena from a new perspective (forexample, 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 tobecome well-versed in argumentation and hypothesis testing. Owing to the toneand the content covered, this textbook would be an excellent choice for bothintroductory undergraduate- and graduate-level courses.


Chomsky, N., and M. Halle. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harperand Row.

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 Englishcopula. Language 45, 715-762.

Labov, W. 1972. The social stratification of (r) in New York City departmentstores. In Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


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.

Page Updated: 29-Aug-2010