LINGUIST List 30.1047

Wed Mar 06 2019

Review: General Linguistics: Yule (2016)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 12-May-2017
From: Ulrike Stange <>
Subject: The Study of Language
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AUTHOR: George Yule
TITLE: The Study of Language
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Ulrike Stange, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz


The Study of Language is an excellent textbook introducing the linguistics student to key concepts and basic terminology pertaining to the most prominent fields in language research. It is a highly accessible introduction and thus aimed at an audience with little or no previous knowledge of linguistics. The book is divided into 20 chapters, each of which concludes with a list of study questions, further tasks to gain more knowledge in the respective field, a variety of discussion topics and/or projects, as well as a well-organised list of references (general vs. specific texts on individual topics). With an average length of 10 pages, all of the chapters are rather short.

This is a revised edition, and the revisions include changes in the content of individual chapters (specifically the ones on phonetics, grammar and syntax), the addition of more than thirty new figures and tables, eighty new study questions and twenty new tasks. The book is complemented by very helpful on-line resources for both lecturers and students (quizzes, flashcards, audio files, answer key for the study questions and the tasks). It also contains a glossary, an index and another list of references.

Chapter 1 is concerned with the origins of language. Making clear from the start that “[w]e simply don’t know how language originated” (1), this chapter describes briefly and to the point a variety of theories and potential sources of human language (God-given, natural sounds, social interaction, physical adaptation, tool-making, genes). Attention is drawn to the benefits and shortcomings of the individual sources when it comes to explaining how language originated, which helps identifying them as more or less likely sources of human language.

Chapter 2 contrasts animal communication and human language. Yule lists and explains the most prominent properties of human language (displacement, arbitrariness, cultural transmission, productivity and duality) and states for each of them whether it can also be found in animal communication and, if yes, to what extent (e.g. a limited type of displacement is found with bees). The second part of the chapter presents brief summaries of the research projects that have been done on trying to teach some form of language (oral or sign) to chimpanzees. The chapter concludes with suggesting a broad and a narrow definition of “using language”, which could help settle the question of whether animals have language or not.

Chapter 3 covers the basics of phonetics (describing consonants and vowels using the parameters voicing/ manner of articulation/ place of articulation and length/ lip-rounding/ tongue position, respectively). It provides helpful figures and tables which provide an overview of the classification of consonants and vowels. Attention is also drawn to two important differences in pronunciation between Southern British English and North American English (flaps, rhoticity).

Chapter 4 introduces the core concepts of phonology, addressing phonemes, phones and allophones, minimal pairs/sets, phonotactics, syllables and co-articulation effects (assimilation, nasalization, elision) in turn.

Chapter 5 explores the word-formation processes at work in English. Borrowings, calques, compounds, blends, clippings, hypocorisms, backformations, conversion, coinage, eponyms, acronyms, initialisms and derivations are all explained briefly and illustrated with a number of examples from English. Yule also stresses the fact that a word can undergo multiple word-formation processes (e.g. from eponym to conversion, as in Hoover > hoover (verb), or from acronym to backformation, as in light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation > laser (noun) > lase (verb)).

Chapter 6 is concerned with morphology, presenting the different types of morphemes (bound derivational/inflectional, free lexical/functional) using relevant examples from the English language. It also discusses morphs and allomorphs as the concrete representations of the different morphemes, and draws on a variety of exotic languages (e.g. Kanuri and Tagalog) to illustrate morphological phenomena not found in English.

Chapter 7 focuses on grammar in its various meanings. More specifically, one section is concerned with “traditional grammar”, introducing the different parts of speech, the notions of agreement and grammatical gender, one section is concerned with the prescriptive approach and its shortcomings, and still another section is concerned with descriptive grammar and the means used to describe actual language use (structural analysis and constituent analysis). The chapter also covers the grammatical functions phrases can have and briefly touches upon word order and language typology.

The chapter on syntax (8) highlights the quest for syntactic rules to account for all well-formed utterances in a language. It contains a brief description of generative grammar and creates awareness for the presence of deep and surface structures in the language we produce. It explains how structural ambiguity arises and provides the tools for syntactic analysis in terms of phrase structure rules, lexical rules and tree diagrams.

Chapter 9 explores the field of semantics. It differentiates between referential and associative/emotive meaning to set the ground for the following analyses, which extend to semantic features, semantic roles (agent, patient/theme, instrument, experiencer, location, source and goal), lexical relations (synonymy, antonymy, hyponymy, homonymy, polysemy and metonymy) and prototypes. Yule also shows how homonyms and polysemes can be exploited for humorous effects. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of how the mental lexicon is possibly organised, referring to collocations and insights based on corpus linguistics.

Chapter 10 moves from referential meaning to “speaker meaning” (141) and introduces the reader to the field of pragmatics. The first part covers concepts like physical and linguistic context (or co-text), deixis, anaphora, reference, inference, presupposition, pragmatic markers that are all relevant to communication in general, while the second part is concerned with the notions of politeness and (positive/negative) face, and concomitantly, direct and indirect speech acts.

Chapter 11 (discourse analysis) explores what mechanisms are at work in everyday communication that help us communicate successfully and interpret the interlocutor’s utterances (or messages) correctly. Yule addresses the concepts of discourse, cohesion, coherence, turns, (filled) pauses, adjacency pairs and insertion sequences to illustrate the basic principles of conversation. The Co-operative Principle is used to explain how we communicate successfully even if, on the surface, we are not adhering to it (viz. when we’re providing seemingly irrelevant answers or use hedges, etc.). A brief discussion of background knowledge and schemas and scripts completes the list of prerequisites for successful communication.

Chapter 12 highlights what limited knowledge we have about language in the brain, gives the reasons why and briefly presents what little we know ‘for sure’ - viz. the locations and functions of the language areas (Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area, the arcuate fasciculus, parts of the motor cortex). The chapter also discuss the potential causes for and implications of the so-called tip of the tongue-phenomenon, different types of slips of the tongue (in particular spoonerisms, perseveration, anticipation and exchange) and slips of the ear. The chapter also sketches the three main types of aphasia (Broca’s, Wernicke’s and conduction aphasia) and explains how the dichotic listening test provides evidence for left hemisphere dominance of language in humans. It concludes with a short discussion of the critical period, using the case of Genie as an example.

Chapter 13 is concerned with first language acquisition and provides a neat summary of the stages involved in this process (viz. cooing, babbling, one-word stage, two-word stage, telegraphic speech), all of which are illustrated with relevant examples. Yule stresses the importance of adequate input and lists the most prominent properties of motherese (or caregiver speech). The author also critically discusses the acquisition process as such in that there is huge variability among children regarding at what age they go through the individual stages and in that children are unlikely to learn through instruction, imitation or correction (as is often assumed). The second part of the chapter deals with how children acquire morphology (ten stages listed), syntax (sample constructions: questions and negatives) and semantics (overextension, lexicon).

Chapter 14 focuses on second language acquisition or learning and starts by clarifying the terms foreign and second language as well as acquisition and learning. It discusses a variety of factors that affect learning a second language, such as age, degree of exposure, phonological aspects (accent, unfamiliar sounds) and affective factors (e.g., no connection to target culture or self-consciousness). The chapter also presents three approaches to teaching a second language that have been or still are popular (grammar-translation method, audio-lingual method, communicative approaches) and identifies their particularities. The last section concentrates on the learner and introduces the concepts of (positive or negative) transfer, interlanguage, negotiated input, output and task-based learning. It also stresses the importance of motivation (whether instrumental or integrative or other) and communicative competence for successful L2 learning/acquisition.

Chapter 15 deals with gestures and sign languages. Gestures accompany speech (in the form of, e.g. iconics, deictics or beats) while signing is a form of speech/language in its own right. The chapter distinguishes between alternate sign languages (at work for specific purposes by users who have a first language they can speak) and primary sign languages (used as first language). It briefly outlines the differences between Signed English (MCE), American Sign Language (ASL) and finger-spelling, and introduces the parameters used to describe signs (shape, orientation, location, movement). The final section of the chapter stresses the fact that ASL is a natural language, with the characteristics similar to any `normal´ spoken language (e.g., regional variation, arbitrariness, syntax).

Chapter 16 is concerned with written language. It starts by introducing pictograms, ideograms and logograms as they help explain the development of written language. It explains the differences between phonographic, syllabic and alphabetic writing and provides relevant examples for all of these forms. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the relationship between spelling and pronunciation in present-day English and explains why spelling is such a poor guide to pronunciation and vice versa.

Chapter 17 is about language history and change. It presents the concept of language families and uses a variety of examples to illustrate how the relationships between different languages are reconstructed (cognate comparison through sound and word reconstruction). It also offers a very condensed history of the English language, listing important changes in phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics.

Chapter 18 explores regional variation in the English language. It explains what a/the standard language is and distinguishes between accent and dialect. Delving into dialectology, NORMs, isoglosses and dialect boundaries are introduced, as they help distinguish different regional dialects. The chapter also briefly touches upon bilingualism and diglossia and sketches the stages involved in language planning. The last section of this chapter is concerned with (English) pidgins and creoles, the main characteristics of which are described using the example of Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea).

Chapter 19 concentrates on social variation in language and represents a brief introduction to sociolinguistics. Labov’s (2006) “department store study” is used to illustrate the relationship between the linguistic variable rhoticity and the social variable socio-economic status. The concepts of social marker, speech style (formal vs. informal), style-shifting and prestige (overt vs. covert) are all presented succinctly. Well-chosen examples serve to make clear what the terms speech accommodation (convergence vs. divergence) and register (incl. jargon and slang) mean. The chapter concludes with a presentation of African American English and the main phonological and grammatical features of African American Vernacular English.

The last chapter deals with language and culture. More precisely, it shows how different languages have different categories with regard to, e.g. kinship terms, time concepts or terms of address. The notion of linguistic relativity is discussed critically with respect to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, with the conclusion that “[t]he human manipulates language, not the other way round” (304). The chapter also highlights how gender affects language use (relevant examples include gendered words, structures, speech and interaction).


The Study of Language is an excellent introductory textbook. Introductory really needs to be stressed here, as the individual chapters focus merely on the most essential aspects of the topic in question. The book thus offers enough material to wet the student’s appetite for the respective fields, but the student does need to consult more literature to grasp each topic in its entirety. The tasks at the end of each chapter often introduce relevant terminology not covered in the text (e.g. suppletion is not discussed in the chapter on morphology, but it is covered in the tasks), which ensures that the student learns more about, say, phonology, than is found on the 10 pages preceding the task. The list of references (also found at the end of each chapter), then, is very helpful in guiding the student to the relevant works in case no reference is listed with the task itself. Given that the average length of each chapter is not more than 10 pages, it is surprising how many relevant key concepts and terms Yule fit in AND explained them in a highly accessible way. This is a major achievement worth emphasising in its own way. However, due to the same page limit, the contents must remain superficial to a certain extent. Which is absolutely fine, though, as plenty of further reading is provided.

The internal structure of the chapters is sometimes a bit odd (e.g. word-formation), as it suggests a hierarchy that is disputable (e.g. coinage as a super-ordinate term for coinage, eponym and acronym, or clipping for clipping, hypocorism and backformation). In the chapter on pragmatics, I would have expected Yule to introduce the classification of speech acts based on Searle (1969, 1977) or (at least) mention Austin (1962). Yet, they are not to be found either in the text or in the references. The chapter on neurolinguistics is a very simplified version of how language is represented in the brain, and it seems as if language is always found in the left hemisphere (which is not the case).

The overall structure of the book is very good. The chapters proceed from the basic levels of linguistic analysis to the presentation of the major research areas in linguistics. When reading the book the sequence of the chapters makes perfect sense, and Yule does a good job linking them by appropriate transitions, too. At the start of each chapter we find an anecdote or quote that introduces the topic as well as a brief description of what the respective chapter is about. From the very first chapter until the last one this textbook is very reader-friendly and highly accessible. Of course, the bite-sized chapters have their drawbacks, but all in all, this textbook is brilliant and I would highly recommend using it in introductory courses. I have read and used a number of books in my course Introduction to English Linguistics, but The Study of Language is the best of them, and even better now in the revised edition.


Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. In The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, edited by J. O. Urmson. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

Labov, William. 2006. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, John R. 1969. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Searle, John. 1977. “A Classification of Illocutionary Acts.” In Proceedings of the Texas Conference on Performatives, Presuppositions and Implicatures, edited by Andy Rogers, Bob Wall, and John P. Murphy, 27–45. Arlington, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.


Ulrike Stange has a PhD in English Linguistics and is a research assistant at the Department of English and Linguistics at Mainz University in Germany. Her research interests include intensifiers, emotive interjections, translation studies and dialectal variation in British English.

Page Updated: 06-Mar-2019