LINGUIST List 23.1882
Sat Apr 14 2012
Review: General Linguistics; English: Rutherford (2011)
Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao
Sheila Dooley <sheila.dooley
Whys & Therefores
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AUTHOR: William RutherfordTITLE: Whys & ThereforesSUBTITLE: A Rational Look at the English LanguagePUBLISHER: EquinoxYEAR: 2011
Sheila A. Dooley, Department of English, University of Texas at Brownsville
This volume is a collection of 100 short dialogues between a tutor ('Marta') anda student ('Patrick') discussing some of the most puzzling facts about Englishspelling, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Patrick poses a 'Why?'question about English, to which Marta responds with a Socratic discourse,leading Patrick to a 'Therefore' answer. Or, Marta herself initiates a dialogueby extending a discussion from a previous session. The dialogues, which arereferred to as 'Days', are arranged into twenty chapters, each one composed of aset of five dialogues whose content is related thematically. The majority of thechapters deal with questions of morphology and syntax.
On Day 1, Marta and Patrick begin their collaboration with a discussion of whatit means to know a word like 'drink'. In later discussions of vocabulary andword formation, they explore phenomena such as neologisms, the negativeallomorphs 'in-/im-/il-', and the right-headedness of compounds in English. Onewhole chapter is devoted to compounds and another to the formation ofcontractions. Syntactic topics range from correct usage of case forms andnegative polarity items to the construction of cleft sentences, relativeclauses, comparatives, and interrogatives. For example, in Day 51, Marta andPatrick work out the syntactic constraints governing how to use 'who' and 'whom'correctly. The next day, they continue the discussion of wh-words, discoveringthat sentences which have the form of questions can in fact be statements, aswhen Marta says 'Can anybody argue with that?' Additionally, there are threechapters which deal exclusively with questions of English spelling andphonology, including silent letters, consonant clusters, syllabic consonants,and stress placement. Over Days 44 and 45, Marta helps Patrick to understand whysome words double their final consonant when a suffix is added, while others donot. By the end of Day 45, Patrick is able to articulate the rule thatconsonants are doubled when a preceding vowel is lax (as in 'shopping'). Thereare also Days devoted to the semantics of idiomatic expressions, spatial deixis,metaphor, and epistemic and deontic modality. The final chapter of the bookrevisits the question of word knowledge, and in Day 100, Patrick and Marta endtheir tutoring sessions with observations about the grammatical 'mistakes' thatnative speakers produce naturally, such as the phenomenon of the double 'is', asin 'What the problem is is that . . . '
Each chapter ends with a Postcript, or 'PS', that sometimes serves as anexercise for the reader in applying or extending the content of the chapter. Anindex of technical terms, a list of references, and notes to accompany the Daysand Postscripts complete the contents. The book is described by the author as a'do-it-yourself book' (p. xiv) and is intended for a wide audience of readerswho have varying degrees of familiarity with the subject matter. It can be readsimply for entertainment, but the author states in the preface that its purposeis (among other things) to stimulate curiosity about language, inspire criticalthinking, and demonstrate to native speakers that they do actually know a greatdeal about language intuitively.
Even though the discussions of each Day are mainly kept at a level suitable forgeneral or beginner student audiences, there is still material here that can beenlightening for readers with more advanced knowledge of some areas oflinguistics. For example, Patrick wonders on Day 26 why English spelling is so'crazy', with words like 'bomb', 'sign', and 'muscle', which contain silentletters. These seem much more logical, however, after Marta simply remindsPatrick that these 'silent' letters are not silent in the related words'bombardier', 'signal', and 'muscular'. Marta and Patrick revel in affixproductivity, adding '-ize' and gleefully creating new words left and right.They explore the spatial metaphors of 'come/go' and why the order in frozenexpressions such as 'coming and going' cannot be reversed, inviting the readerin a PS to extend the investigation of frozen word orders to three-placeexpressions, such as 'lock, stock, and barrel'. Topics such as these and manyothers rarely find their way into introductory level linguistics texts, but canillustrate much about the structure of language. There are also some fresh takeshere on fundamental but thorny points of English grammar. The basic mysteries ofspecificity and definiteness are appealingly clarified without any recourse tophilosophy or logic. A whole chapter on the family of contractions in Englishhelps with distinguishing between the false twins ‘it’s/its’-- a distinctionthat is incredibly elusive to many student English writers. Marta remindsPatrick that 'its' is not so exceptional after all and is actually not the onlypossessive in English without an apostrophe; we all tend to forget about'theirs', 'ours', and 'hers'.
The format of Whys & Therefores is truly innovative and is by far its mostmemorable feature. While this book is not the first linguistic work to use thedialogue framework (cf. Lasnik & Uriagereka 1988; Uriagereka 1998), it is thefirst to deliver dialogues that are short enough, accessible enough, andentertaining enough for mass consumption. It is a particularly contemporaryformat, with the Days suggestive of a 'dialogue of the day' app or a YouTubesnippet. The discursive structure of the dialogues can feel repetitive if toomany Days are read in one sitting, so the book is indeed best consumed in thedaily format in which it is structured. The fact that the Days are presented asdialogues also gives the reader the impression of participating in a liveversion of the action, somewhat like the vicarious experiences so popular todayin reality TV programs. The book is clearly more than just a collection oftranscripts of student-teacher interactions. Like reality TV, the recordedconversations have been chosen and arranged by the author with care to presentsomething that is much more than just a literal record of what was said.
One cannot help but wonder, nevertheless, how much editing took place in thetranscripts. This is not clear. In fact, neither is it altogether clear if thedialogues actually took place or if they are the skillful composition of ateacher well-versed in both the Socratic method, and the intricacies of theEnglish language. At first, there is no reason to doubt that 'Marta' and'Patrick' did have these conversations. However, after a while, they both seemto be incredibly astute. If only all students were as inquisitive and observantas Patrick! If only all tutors were as knowledgeable, patient, and entertainingas Marta! If these two personas were indeed based on actual individuals, thenthe author certainly chose them well. Wanting the full experience, I went insearch of the accompanying CD which is available for the book. I wanted to hearthe lively interaction between Marta and Patrick. Unfortunately, the audioversions of the dialogues were not available from the publisher's website,contrary to what is stated in the preface of the book. Websites are notoriouslyephemeral, so we can only hope that the publisher will deliver the audio contentin the future. It would greatly enhance the whole experience of these dialogues,which are usually quite lively, even in the form of the written word.
The design of the book is also non-traditional. Several fonts and font sizes areblended together on each page. Boldface, italics, quotation marks, capitals, andunderlining jostle one another everywhere, creating a visual frenzy at times.Proverbs, quotations, cartoons, and other bits of literature or popular cultureare pasted in like post-it notes at the beginning or end of each Day. These areclearly meant to stimulate interest, provoke thought, and give the whole textadded personality. The effect of all these visual elements can at first be oneof distraction rather than support and enhancement for the content of the text.However, there is a method to this madness. This is most evident on the firstpage of each chapter, where the sometimes mysterious titles for each Day aredisplayed in a mixture of font sizes. For example, Chapter 3 begins with acollage of the Day titles (with non-capitalization and punctuation preservedfrom the text): 'worth a standing ovulation. . . ', 'a mirror into the future','souving the serp', 'hamburgers & infotainment', 'hair today, gone tomorrow',and 'glarpos and elbonics' (the chapter PS). This chapter is about creativity inlanguage, so it is understandable that its Day titles are extraordinary. Andthey do serve a purpose; after the initial visual shock, curiosity sets in. Howcan one resist such titles? What in the world could Patrick and Marta bediscussing in a dialogue titled 'souving the serp'? The reader has to find out,and dives in, learning about speech errors and the persistence of Englishmorphology.
Coverage of linguistic concepts is limited in scope and unsystematic inarrangement, even if the Days are grouped into thematic chapters. However, asthe author explains in the preface, this is an effect of selecting topics thatcould be handled well in simple dialogues. Two-thirds of the book's dialoguesare devoted to concepts of morphology and syntax, with the final third beingcomposed of a mixture of subject areas. There is thus a strong bias towardcoverage of word and sentence structure. Within subject areas, the choice oftopics for each chapter is somewhat of a grab bag. For example, Chapter 19,'Modification', includes the following concepts: adverbial modification,relative clauses, object and subject relatives, 'the garden path', cleftsentences, and noun complements. The reader is given, at best, a taste of eachone of these. Again, this is constrained by the need to keep the dialoguesconsistently brief and accessible to a general audience of readers.
While the dialogue structure of the book might seem to recommend it highly as acandidate for an introductory linguistics textbook, it is not intended to beused as one and would indeed be unsuitable for this purpose because of itslimited scope. Technical vocabulary is used in context, but is not alwaysdefined sufficiently within a dialogue. Patrick seems to control a fair amountof linguistic knowledge already and may be more advanced than some readers.Although it is possible for readers to consult the index to locate discussionsof technical terms, the index is arranged in a non-traditional way that can beconfusing. Instead of listing page numbers, the index references terms by Dayand PS numbers. A more traditional format would have been much easier tonavigate, and the addition of a separate glossary of terms would have enhancedthe book's user-friendliness for uninitiated readers; but then, it would be atotally different book, more similar to so many other introductory textbooks inprint. Whys & Therefores could, however, be used successfully as a supplementaltext in conjunction with a more traditional textbook.
The author mentions that the book can be used for reference, but, as stated inthe previous paragraph, the contents are too limited in scope and arranged toorandomly for it to function properly as a good reference book. Information abouta specific term or phenomenon must be gleaned in bits and pieces from differentsections of the book. For example, information on the term 'compound' can befound in Days 1, 66, and 76-80, and the term is (according to the index)featured as well in the PS extras to Chapters 1, 4, 8, 16, and 20. However, thePS to Chapter 1 is an exercise in speculation about what is included in'knowledge of a word', and the term ‘compound’ is totally absent from the textthere. Using this volume as a reference tool would be unhelpful for readers whowant to find clear information on key terms and concepts quickly.
The explanations given each Day vary greatly, and some days are -- true to life-- far more satisfying than others. This depends partially on the familiarity ofthe reader with linguistic analysis and vocabulary. Even if terminology is notan issue, some readers may not fully appreciate the Socratic method ofpresentation. It asks the reader to engage completely in the intellectualjourney toward an explanation, rather than offering one up for immediateconsumption. There are even several Days which can seem to offer no 'Therefore'answer at all. Some readers may be left simply feeling more confused at the endof the Day. Take Day 49, 'classifying, categorizing', in which Marta leadsPatrick down a rational path to determine why some words take the suffix '-ify'while others take '-ize'. Patrick's first hypothesis is that the difference isbetween 'long' and 'short' words, and Marta helps him to refine that to adifference based on how many syllables a word contains. Marta points out,however, that both suffixes can be found attached to two-syllable words.Patrick's final response is that 'it looks like the two-syllable ones can goeither way', to which Marta replies, 'Nice little generalization', and thedialogue is suddenly done. The reader is left still wondering why we must say'humid-ify' and not 'humid-ize'. Leaving some questions partially unanswered mayhave the desired effect of spurring readers on to investigate more on their own,but it can just as easily frustrate them. This is an acknowledged dangerinherent in the Socratic method of teaching rather than a unique feature of thisparticular book.
Ultimately, Whys & Therefores is a bold work hoping to combine and balancepedagogy, linguistic discovery and explanation, and entertainment. This is notan easy task to undertake, as any teacher will confirm. A measure of this book'svalue is that it is likely to be highly useful to teachers -- not as a coretextbook, because its coverage is incomplete and unsystematic, but as a goldmine of supplemental material for introductory linguistics courses. The clearestmeasure of this book's success is its potentially transforming effect on thereader, which is stated specifically as the goal of the author. Firstimpressions may be that this unconventional book is confusing and a trifleunsettling, but this in itself engenders natural human curiosity and an urge tosolve its mysteries and achieve an understanding. What could be a more perfectembodiment of Socratic pedagogy?
Uriagereka, Juan. 1998. Rhyme and reason: An introduction to Minimalist syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lasnik, Howard & Juan Uriagereka. 1988. A course in GB syntax. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Sheila A. Dooley teaches English Grammar, Introductory Linguistics, and Introduction to Second Language Acquisition to students in the Rio Grande Valley who are on the career path to becoming English teachers. Her research includes both innovative classroom practices for teaching grammar and typological studies of verb initial languages.
Page Updated: 14-Apr-2012