LINGUIST List 23.4805

Sun Nov 18 2012

Review: General Linguistics: Rickerson & Hilton (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 18-Nov-2012
From: Ricard Vinas de Puig <>
Subject: The Five-Minute Linguist, Second Edition
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EDITORS: Rickerson, E. M. and Hilton, BarryTITLE: The Five-Minute Linguist, Second EditionSUBTITLE: Bite-sized Essays on Language and LanguagesPUBLISHER: EquinoxYEAR: 2012

Ricard Viñas-de-Puig, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, East Carolina University


‘The Five-Minute Linguist’, a volume edited by E. M. Rickerson and Barry Hilton, is an extensive collection of short introductory essays discussing different aspects related to language and linguistics. The book stems from the series of radio chats entitled ‘Talkin’ About Talk’, which started in 2005 (as part of the celebration of the ‘Year of Languages’ in the United States). The book, which is presented as a “lively introduction to the subject of language” (back cover), consists of 65 brief, 3-to-5-page chapters dealing with different language and linguistics topics, with each one written by scholars specializing in the area of their respective essay. The book is intended for beginning linguistics students or for the general public.

In each of the 65 essays, each author responds to the question posed in the title and a series of follow-up questions in the subtitle. Every response is in the form of a short essay, using language and terminology accessible to readers with very little or no previous knowledge on language and linguistics. After each essay, each chapter includes a short biographic sketch of the author(s) and suggested readings related to the topic from other chapters in the book and/or from external sources.

Although the book is not overtly divided into different sections, the editors organized the essays so that the reader can identify common topics in different chapters. The volume starts with a series of essays on basic notions of language and linguistics (‘Why learn about language?’; ‘You’re a linguist? How many languages do you speak?’; ‘How many languages are there in the world?’; ‘What’s the difference between dialects and languages?’), followed by a few chapters loosely related to the origin of languages and historical linguistics (‘What was the original language?’; ‘Do all languages come from the same source?’; ‘What language did Adam and Eve speak?’, in which the author of the chapter, who is also one of the editors of the book, presents different views throughout history on what the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was or could have been, and how the topic fell out of fashion in the world of academia once the Indo-European language family was discovered; ‘Do languages have to change?’). The book continues with two essays related to the general notion of languages in contact (‘What are lingua francas?’; ‘Isn’t Pidgin English just bad English?’) and two others dealing with writing (‘How many kinds of writing systems are there?’; ‘Where did writing come from?’). The following two chapters present the basic notions of grammar, or syntax and Universal Grammar (UG) (‘Where does grammar come from?; ‘Do all languages have the same grammar?’), which is a topic readdressed in Chapters 19 and 20, where the reader is taken from the concept of syntax (and/or grammar) to that of prescriptivism (‘What’s the right way to put words together?’; ‘Is British English the best English?’). The topic of the relationship between language, brain, and cognition (and the idea of linguistic relativity,) is treated in Chapters 17 and 18 (‘Does our language influence the way we think?’; ‘How does the brain cope with multiple languages?’). These topics are also related to the notion of bi- and multilingualism (and hyperpolyglots), which are the subjects of the essays in Chapters 22 and 23 (‘What does it mean to be bilingual?’; ‘How many languages can a person learn?’). The topic of first language acquisition, including the notion of the Critical Period, is discussed in Chapters 15 (‘How do babies learn their mother tongue?’) and 25 (‘What happens if you are raised without a language?’). The reader is also introduced to the notion of language death (‘Why do languages die?’) and endangerment as well as linguistic conservation and revitalization (‘Can a threatened language be saved?’).

A significant section of the book deals with language learning, which is introduced first with a chapter on phonetics and phonology (‘How are the sounds of language made?’), followed by two chapters on the differences that lead to different accents and their perception (‘Why do American Southerners talk that way?’; ‘What causes a foreign language?’), and finally, by six consecutive essays on language teaching and second language acquisition (‘Can monolingualism be cured?’; ‘What does it take to learn a language well?’; ‘How have our ideas about language learning changed through the years?’; ‘Why study languages abroad?’; ‘Is elementary school too early to teach foreign languages?’; ‘Can computers teach languages faster and better?’). The topic of (second or foreign) language learning, and its implications in the job market, is reassessed in Chapter 45 (‘Can you make a living of loving languages?’).

Another important section of the book comprises a series of seven consecutive essays (starting with Chapter 38) regarding different language issues in the US, ranging from the notion of an official language (‘What’s the language of the United States?’) to the role of Spanish (‘What’s the future of Spanish in the United States?’), and also including aspects dealing with linguistic diversity (‘What is Cajun and where did it come from?’; ‘What’s Gullah?’; ‘Are dialects dying?’, an essay that focuses only on English varieties) or more random issues (‘Is there a language crisis in the United States?’; ‘Did German almost become the language of the United States?’).

The last thirteen essays of the book can be divided into two categories. The first is a collection of eleven chapters devoted to some of the world’s major languages or language families, including three chapters on Latin and Romance languages (‘Is Latin really dead?’; ‘Who speaks Italian?’; ‘How different are Spanish and Portuguese?’), and chapters discussing different myths about Russian (‘Should we be studying Russian?’), the importance of Icelandic within the field of linguistics (‘What’s exciting about Icelandic?’), the differences between Hebrew and Yiddish (‘What’s the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish?’), variation within Arabic varieties (‘Do all Arabs speak the same language?’), the relevance of Swahili and other languages of Africa (‘Is Swahili the language of Africa?’), linguistic variation in India (‘What’s the language of India?’), and the difficulties native English speaking students (whose first language is English) face when learning Chinese (‘Do you have to be a masochist to study Chinese?’) or Japanese (‘Is studying Japanese worth the effort?’). The last two chapters, which constitute the second of the two categories mentioned above, deal with artificial languages, with one essay devoting itself to Esperanto (‘Whatever happened to Esperanto?’) and another discussing Klingon (‘Does anybody here speak Klingon?’).

Finally, there are a few chapters in the book that seem to stand on their own, despite the editors’ loose classification presented in the introduction. The issues discussed in these essays are varied, and include animal communication systems (‘Do animals use language?’, in Chapter 16), language policy and diglossia (‘Why do people fight over language?’, in Chapter 21), signed languages (‘Do Deaf people everywhere use the same sign language?’, in Chapter 26), forensic linguistics (‘Can you use language to solve crimes?’, in Chapter 49), the National Museum of Language (‘How can you keep languages in a museum?’, in Chapter 50), the history of the English language (‘Where did English come from?’, in Chapter 51), the diversity of Native American languages (‘How many Native American languages are there?’, in Chapter 52), and even an essay on speaking in tongues (‘What is ‘speaking in tongues’?’, in Chapter 24).


‘The Five-Minute Linguist’ is an excellent introduction to the world of languages and linguistics aimed at first-time linguistics (or linguistically inclined) students and the general public with no previous knowledge on the field of language, languages, and linguistics. The editors have compiled a series of easy-to-read essays that provide some basic information about some of the different disciplines within the field of linguistics. The result is an extensive collection of accessible chapters that, despite being written by experts on each respective topic, are accessible to all readers without the use of obscure or discipline-specific terminology. The book also serves to debunk some of the widely circulated myths about language and languages, thus serving a very positive, and needed, function; it informs the general public about what language is, how it works, and how we use it.

Despite this overall positive perception, there are some issues that could have been considered and improved, especially taking into account that this is the second edition of the book. Although right from the introduction the editors ‘warn’ us about the intended non-specialized, general informational goal of the book, one must consider that there is too little information about some formal linguistic disciplines; few chapters deal with formal disciplines such as phonetics (in Chapter 29) or syntax (in Chapters 13 and 14). When compared to another (widely known) book that might also serve as an introduction to the notion of language and linguistics, such as ‘The Language Instinct’ (Pinker 1994), some readers (especially students who are learning about language in the classroom) might note the lack of information about morphology or phonology, both of which are disciplines that can be introduced using non-technical, easily accessible language (i.e. using the informal language promoted by the editors). In contrast, the number of essays devoted to language learning (and second language acquisition) outnumber other topics; this content imbalance results in a book that might be more interesting to students learning second (and/or) foreign languages in the US than to linguistics students, or even the general public.

Another aspect that raises some red flags comes from the initial nature of the radio talks and their promoters (including the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, ACTFL). Being an introduction to the notion of language and languages, one finds that, barring the last few chapters on some individual languages and a couple of individual essays on the presence of other languages in the US, the book is very English-centric, and may lead to the perception that non-English use is not the norm, and that knowledge of and about other linguistic varieties is a marked feature worldwide. Some of the issues and notions presented could very well be discussed without a (somewhat blurred) focus on speakers of English.

Overall, and notwithstanding the few issues mentioned above, ‘The Five-Minute Linguist’ is an excellent, very accessible, and extremely easy- and fun-to-read introduction to some of the basic questions (and misconceptions) regarding language, language learning, and linguistics. The book clearly meets the editors’ intended goals; with each essay, the reader is engaged in a five-minute, light and informal conversation about the passionate topic of language.


Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Harper Collins.


Ricard Viñas-de-Puig (PhD, Purdue University, 2009) is an Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies, with a specialization in linguistics, at the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures of East Carolina University. His research interests focus on the argument and eventive structure of psych and experiencer verbs in Romance (with an emphasis on Catalan and Spanish), on the documentation and preservation of indigenous languages of the Americas (especially those varieties found in immigrant settings in the US), and on the implementation of participatory approaches to linguistic research.

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