LINGUIST List 32.1762

Wed May 19 2021

Review: General Linguistics: Yule (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 02-Nov-2020
From: Adrià Torrens Urrutia <>
Subject: The Study of Language
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: George Yule
TITLE: The Study of Language
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Adrià Torrens Urrutia, Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Spain)


General Summary

This book is a textbook for introducing linguistics in general. The strongest aspect of this book is its exceptionally easily readable prose. It can be used both for teachers and self-learners. For teachers, this textbook is a guide for preparing introductory lessons for students who have never had any training in linguistics. Self-learners would find a solid foundation for their first steps into linguistics. Thus, this textbook can be a good purchase in times of COVID-19 for those who want to have extra support for their online introductory courses in linguistics.

The book takes into account the main topics that should be introduced to anyone who is starting with linguistics: origins of language, particularities of human language, phonetics and phonology, morphology, grammar, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, psycholinguistics, first and second language acquisition, sign and written language, history of language, and sociolinguistics.

This 7th edition is comprised of 20 chapters. Each chapter consists of two parts. The first part exposes the related work regarding the subject of the chapter. Additionally, it discusses the main must-known issues. The second part of the chapter offers study questions and tasks, discussion topics to expand on, and a list of references for further reading. Every chapter has an appropriate font size, headings, use of colour, and pictures to make the content more attractive and appealing. The book also includes a glossary, a reference section, and an index, all of which are complete and very useful.

However, this book is not ideal for those who already have training in linguistics or don’t plan to give introductory lessons in linguistics. This textbook avoids presenting both in-depth, complex theoretical discussion, and technical points of view.

Some of the topics and techniques which are avoided in this textbook are the following: vagueness in natural language, an introduction to parsers, distributional semantics techniques, using corpus as a tool for linguistic research, formal grammars, and formal semantics (excepting generativist tree diagrams and semantic features).

Structure Summary

Chapter 1 begins with the origins of language and includes a discussion of the different sources of origin. Chapter 2, 'Animals and Human Language', includes studies on chimpanzees, and it presents the properties of human language: displacement, arbitrariness, productivity, cultural transmission, and duality.

Chapters 3 and 4 introduce students to phonetics ('The Sounds of Language'), and phonology ('The Sound Patterns of Language'). Chapters 5 and 6, entitled 'Word Formation' and 'Morphology' present such topics with examples in different languages.

Chapter 7, 'Grammar', Chapter 8, 'Syntax', and Chapter 9, 'Semantics' present basic concepts such as prescriptive vs descriptive approach, word order, syntactic rules, deep vs surface structure, syntactic analysis, meaning, semantic features, semantic roles, and lexical relations and concordance.

Chapter 10, 'Pragmatics', includes how we get meaning on context, deixis, reference, speech acts, politeness theory, among others. Chapter 11, 'Discourse Analysis', introduce this model and its main properties such as turn-taking, pauses and filled pauses, adjacency pairs, insertion sequences, co-operative principle, and hedges, implicatures.

Chapter 12, 'Language and the Brain', Chapter 13, 'First Language Acquisition' (FLA), and Chapter 14, 'Second Language Acquisition' (SLA) are entirely focused on the psycholinguistic aspect of language. They introduce essential topics such as aphasias, the process of acquisition, teaching method, transfers on second language acquisition.

Chapter 15, 'Gestures and Sign Languages', shows a very brief overview of signed languages in general, and more extensively for sign language in English.

Chapter 16, 'Written language', gives an introduction of writing systems of the world's languages: pictograms, ideograms, logograms, phonographic writing, alphabetic writing, and written English.

The last four chapters of the book are Chapter 17, 'Language History and Change', Chapter 18, 'Language and Regional Variety', and Chapter 19, 'Language and Social Variation', and Chapter 20, 'Language and Culture'. These chapters are focused on the diachronic, synchronic, and sociolinguistic perspective of language, which constitutes a perfect endgame for a general overview of the study of language.


Strengths of the book

-Extremely readable prose. This characteristic makes this book accessible to non-native English speakers. I consider that anyone with a level of B1-B2 in English can make the most of this book.

-The book is an excellent option for those who have never had any previous training in linguistics. Additionally, it can be helpful for those instructors who are giving an introductory course in general linguistics

-It is pedagogically well oriented. There are no “fillers” in any section.

-The length of each chapter is well proportioned.

-The book gives a valuable general view of linguistics in just a few pages of content (330 pages).

-The in-print version is only around 5 GBP (6,5 USD) more expensive than the eBook version. Therefore, for the quality of the design, the cost of the printed version is worth it. The font sizes are excellent, and it makes the reading more comfortable. It has some exercises with “filling the gap” which can be done in the textbook.

-The main 7th edition updates are: improved chapters on phonetics and semantics, introduction of 40 new study questions and 26 tasks, and introduction of new examples from 25 different languages.

Cons of the book

-Not recommendable for those who already have a background in linguistics.

-The book avoids deep theoretical questions.

-For advanced readers, more references and supplementary materials would be needed.


Find below the following recommendations for further editions.

Chapter 2, ‘Animals language and human language’, presents the properties of human language. One of its main properties is avoided ''vagueness''. Vagueness is a conception concerning with those objects which are difficult to be classified categorically at first sight. Therefore, ''studying vagueness in linguistics'' is equivalent to studying linguistic objects with a non-discrete approach. There are many objects in natural languages which are prone to poly-signification, and they are essentially context-dependent. Vagueness is an inherent property in natural language since we can understand vague phrases such as ''the next town is not far''. The expression ''is not far'' is vague itself. How much is not far? 10 km by car? 2 km on foot? It doesn't matter the final meaning (extension) to understand the sentence. In this sense, the ability of reasoning vagueness is one of the main properties of human language. Additionally, we find vagueness in the system of language itself. A typical problem concerning this vagueness is in categorizing part of speech. Some categories can perform as if they were two different categories. Typical examples of this phenomena are expressions such as ''stone bridge''. ''Stone'' is a typical noun, and yet, it can perform as an adjective in such cases. This expression is not an isolated case (Curme, 1935; Lakoff, 1973, 1987; Ross, 1987, 2000). I recommend a brief introduction in this chapter regarding vagueness as a human language property.

Chapter 7, ‘Grammar’, is too short, and, in somehow, misleading. Firstly, it does not present some of the most important theoretical foundations in linguistics, such as the distinction between competence and performance in Chomsky (1965). This book should explain both concepts together with the dichotomy between grammaticality and acceptability. The concepts of competence, performance, grammaticality and acceptability are a must in any introductory linguistic course. How these concepts are considered as discrete or gradient as discussed in Aarts (2004a, 2004b) should be presented. Therefore, another section, such as “gradience in grammar” should be included here.

Consequently, the question whether there is ''gradience in grammar'' should be exposed. Additionally, the section on the parts of speech is misleading too. The part of speech classification offered in the book is presented as valid for any language, which is not true. For example, some grammars consider ''adjectives'' as another type of word-class (or these are not considered at all). Languages like Korean and Japanese have no strict ''adjectives'', and they use verbal forms to express either descriptive or evaluative traits from a noun. Therefore, in the end, the part-of-speech is not a universal classification. Instead, the part of speech classification depends on the language described, and such things should be warned of. Maybe the presented classification should be noted as the ''most accepted in general terms''.

Furthermore, the information offered on the descriptive grammars is weak. It should be mentioned in the descriptive approach (even briefly) how the dependency grammars (Tesnière, 1959), categorial grammars (Buszkowski et al., 1988), and other restriction grammars (Joshi, 1975; Kaplan and Bresnan, 1982; Pollard and Sag, 1994) provide both alternative and complementary views for describing natural language.

Chapter 8, ‘Syntax’, should include other perspectives over the generativist approach. The generativist approach has been gaining merit in introductory courses of linguistics when it comes to describing the syntax of a language, even though it is not the most straightforward theory to grasp for a neophyte in linguistics. Solely presenting the generativist approach is misleading since there are many other approaches to characterize the syntax of a language. I highly recommend addressing (even briefly) approaches which involve grammars with constraints. Some examples of those are dependency grammars (Tesnière, 1959), categorial grammars (Buszkowski et al., 1988), HSPG (Pollard and Sag, 1994), LFG (Kaplan and Bresnan, 1982), Tree-adjoining grammars (Joshi, 1975), Construction grammars (Goldberg, 1995), Property grammars (Blache, 2016), and Optimality theory approaches (Prince and Smolensky, 1993. Maybe the optimality theory could be included in the chapter of phonology). Indeed, there is no need for explaining all these approaches in detail. However, it would be worth mentioning them to not give a false idea that the generativist approach is the only valid one.

Chapter 9, ‘Semantics’, should introduce a brief section for Distributional Semantics. This approach is trending right now, and its research is cognitively valid (Baroni and Lenci, 2010; Erk et al., 2010; Greenberg et al., 2015). Study in distributional semantics has been increased in the last decade, and its value is going to keep growing. It would be worth it to present its main features. Additionally, one of the subsections of the sections of “semantic features” should be “vagueness in semantics”. Vagueness is an inherent feature in the whole natural language; however, it is especially crucial in semantics. Any student who is starting an introductory course in linguistics should be aware of this feature. The studies of Lakoff (1970) and Nóvak (2008) could be mentioned in here.

Finally, as a general recommendation, I believe the book should include a section which presents the most relevant techniques in linguistic research nowadays. These include parsers such as Universal Dependencies (UD) (Zeman et al., 2018; and free corpus website for UD, deep learning techniques, and Machine learning techniques applied to languages.

Final remarks

The author of this book achieves the goals of the book satisfactorily. He provides an extremely easy-to-read introductory book in general linguistics. Therefore, this book is an excellent purchase for both instructors and students of any discipline who are looking for short-fast-valid initial training in general linguistics. This book is the perfect choice for those who are looking to self-learning some linguistics or to get some extra support for introductory online courses in linguistics. Therefore, the strengths of this book balance the cons.

However, anyone who is interested in a more in-depth discussion would find this book too simple. It would be worth considering presenting some of the different proposals that I recommend in an easy-to-read manner. I strongly recommend giving special attention to introducing the topics that are trending in linguistics. These might be even more essential in the future of the field. Nowadays, techniques such as parsers with universal dependencies, the using of deep learning, machine learning, and neuronal networks are partially taking over linguistic studies. It would be beneficial for the students to get to know the pros and cons of these approaches and to be given general characteristics of those when it comes to the study of language. It would be beneficial to present the pros and cons of the formal methods (both formal semantics and formal grammars) over these new techniques, as well as to avoid a generativist-centric perspective regarding the study of language.


Aarts, B. (2004a). Conceptions of gradience in the history of linguistics. Language Sciences,26(4):343–389.

Aarts, B. (2004b). Modelling linguistic gradience. Studies in Language, 28(1):1–49.

Baroni, M. and Lenci, A. (2010). Distributional memory: A general framework for corpus-based semantics. Computational Linguistics, 36(4):673–72.

Blache, P. (2016). Representing syntax by means of properties: a formal framework for descriptive approaches. Journal of Language Modelling, 4(2), 183-224.

Buszkowski, W., Marciszewski, W., and Van Benthem, J. (1988). Categorial Grammar. John Benjamins Publishing, Amsterdam.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press, Cambridge.

Curme, G. O. (1935). A Grammar of the English Language, vol. II: Parts of Speech and Accidence. DC Heath and Co, Boston.

Erk, K., Padó, S., and Padó, U. (2010). A flexible, corpus-driven model of regular and inverseselectional preferences. Computational Linguistics, 36(4):723–763.

Goldberg, A. (1995). Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Greenberg, C., Sayeed, A., and Demberg, V. (2015). Improving unsupervised vector-space thematic fit evaluation via role-filler prototype clustering. In Proceedings of the 2015 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies, pages 21–31, Denver. ACL.

Joshi, A. K., Levy, L. S., and Takahashi, M. (1975). Tree adjunct grammars. Journal of Computer and System Sciences, 10(1):136–163.

Kaplan, R. M. and Bresnan, J. (1982). Lexical-functional grammar: A formal system for grammatical representation. In Dalrymple, M., Kaplan, R. M., Maxwell, J. T., and Zaenen, A., editors, Formal Issues in Lexical-Functional Grammar, pages 29–130.CSLI Publications, Stanford.

Lakoff, G. (1970). Linguistics and natural logic. Synthese, 22(1-2):151–271.

Lakoff, G. (1973). Fuzzy grammar and the performance/competence terminology game. In Corum, C. W., Smith-Stark, T. C., and Weiser, A., editors, Papers from the Ninth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. Chicago Linguistic Society, Chicago.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Novák, V. (2008). A comprehensive theory of trichotomous evaluative linguistic expressions. Fuzzy Sets and Systems, 159(22):2939–2969.

Pollard, C. and Sag, I. A. (1994). Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Prince, A. and Smolensky, P. (1993). Optimality Theory: Constraint Interaction in Generative Grammar. Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

Ross, J. R. (1987). Islands and syntactic prototypes. In Need, B., Schiller, E., and Bosch, A., editors, Papers from the 23rd Annual Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society (Part I: The General Session), pages 309–320, Chicago. Chicago Linguistic Society.

Ross, J. R. (2000). The frozeness of pseudoclefts: towards an inequality-based syntax. In Okrent, A. and Boyle, J., editors, Papers from the Thirty-Sixth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, pages 385–426, Chicago. Chicago Linguistic Society.

Tesnière, L. (1959). Eléments de Syntaxe Structurale. Klincksieck, Paris.

Zeman, D., Hajic, J., Popel, M., Potthast, M., Straka, M., Ginter, F., ... & Petrov, S. (2018, October). CoNLL 2018 shared task: Multilingual parsing from raw text to universal dependencies. In Proceedings of the CoNLL 2018 Shared Task: Multilingual parsing from raw text to universal dependencies (pp. 1-21).


Adrià Torrens Urrutia, Ph.D, is a Post-Doc researcher at the Institute for Research and Applications of Fuzzy Modeling (IRAFM), University of Ostrava (Czech Republic). He is a research member at the Research Group on Mathematical Linguistics GRLMC, Department of Roman Philology, Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Spain). He is also a lecturer in Language teaching at Universitat Rovira i Virgili. His research interest includes Formal Grammars, Fuzzy Grammars, Fuzzy Models, Vagueness in language, Syntax, Semantics, Fuzzy Semantics, General Linguistics, Study of Spanish Language and Applied Linguistics.

Page Updated: 19-May-2021