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Review of  Understanding Language

Reviewer: Adriana Hanulikova
Book Title: Understanding Language
Book Author: Elizabeth Grace Winkler
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 19.69

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AUTHOR: Winkler, Elizabeth Grace
TITLE: Understanding Language
SUBTITLE: A Basic Course in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
YEAR: 2007

Adriana Hanulikova, Department of German Language and Linguistics, Humboldt
University Berlin

According to the author, _Understanding Language_ is a textbook intended for
non-major undergraduate students. It should provide a broad-based treatment of
both theoretical and applied linguistics. The organization of the book is
devised to be as comprehensible as possible for all students who are new to the
field of linguistics. It consists of 10 chapters providing a brief overview on
linguistic topics such as language acquisition, phonetics, animal communication,
morphology, grammar, semantics, pragmatics, history of the English language, and
language variation and change. Each chapter is subdivided into short subsections
with numbered headings and ends with a list of suggested readings, links to
interesting websites as well as practice exercises or questions for students.

Chapter 1 (What every speaker of a language secretly understands) introduces the
basic features of language, its use and function, using cross-linguistic
comparisons. The chapter is organized in a way as to broadly match the topics
that will be discussed in more detail in the following chapters.

Chapter 2 (Human language versus animal communication systems) is an overview of
the discussion of what makes humans special regarding their use of language as
compared to other forms of animal communication. It provides examples ranging
from animal communication systems such as bees, bird calls and songs, to the
more complex systems of primates. The author then discusses research on teaching
human language to chimpanzees, great apes and African grey parrots.

Chapter 3 (Language acquisition) provides a historical sketch of research on
first language acquisition. The author introduces structuralist ideas, Skinner's
behaviorism, and in more detail the innateness theory proposed by Chomsky.
Empirical findings are shown that are in line with the innateness idea,
including research on the human brain. The author further discusses
developmental stages children go through when they acquire a first language. The
second part of this chapter deals with research done on second language
acquisition. It provides a chronologically organized review of some
methodological practices and includes examples of linguistic as well as
extra-linguistic factors in language acquisition. It provides some key concepts
such as Lado's contrastive analysis, the error analysis, and the critical period
hypothesis. The chapter concludes with recent research on second language

Chapter 4 (Phonetics) concentrates on articulatory phonetics. No distinction is
made between phonetics and phonology. The articulation of consonants and vowels
is described, with a focus on English. The IPA is introduced, and IPA chart is
provided for standard varieties of worldwide English. The chapter goes beyond
the segmental level and also very briefly introduces intonation and phrasal stress.

Chapter 5 (Morphology: The makeup of words in a language) presents the basics of
word categorization into content and function words. By showing many English
examples, it introduces the structure of words and their components such as free
versus bound morphemes, inflectional and derivational morphemes. It includes a
section on morphophonology (called morphology and phonetics) and provides a
detailed description on word formation processes. The chapter ends with a
section on how dictionaries are created and describes the completion of the
first full dictionary of English by Samuel Johnson.

Chapter 6 (Grammar) introduces the ideas of the traditional grammar and briefly
discusses syntactic categories. Differing language word orders are demonstrated
using various language sources. The author then offers an easy-to-follow
introduction to phrase structure grammar, discusses the advantages and the
limitations of it, and explains the rules and the notations of phrases. The
author uses visual representations of tree diagrams to explain their creation,
and describes the relation between phrase structure grammar and tree diagrams.

Chapter 7 (Semantics: language and meaning) discusses the concept of both
lexical and sentential meaning and how meaning develops. The author shows the
complex relationship between reference and words, and between the associations
with other concepts. Concepts such as ambiguity, synonymy, or antonymy are
explained. The author further introduces the distinction between compositional
versus non-compositional meanings of an utterance, providing examples from world
Englishes. A section on irony and sarcasm closes this chapter.

Chapter 8 (Pragmatics: language in use) introduces the basics of direct and
indirect speech acts. It shows how advertisers or politicians make use of
indirect speech and how language is used for conveying non-literal messages. The
author includes a section on humor, because, as the author points out, it is the
result of playing with language on various linguistic levels such as morphology,
syntax, phonetics or semantics, all of which have been discussed in earlier

Chapter 9 (The history of English) provides a historical sketch of the
development of English from the Old English period to modern English. The most
influential events and people are mentioned such as Beowulf from the Old English
period, Chaucer as well as Shakespeare from the Middle English period, and the
development of printing press. The lexical change, the influence of other
languages on English, as well as changes in grammar and the spelling system of
English are discussed. The Great Vowel Shift is introduced to demonstrate how
sound systems and pronunciation changed over time.

Chapter 10 (Language variation and change) is the longest and the most elaborate
chapter of the book dealing with the conditions influencing language change. The
author provides an overview of how word meaning can shift, discusses variation
and change in pronunciation, as well as grammatical and morphological shifts. An
extensive description of language variation, dialects as well as social
attitudes towards differing varieties of a language is provided. The author
introduces language contact and the related development of pidgin and creoles,
and includes a subsection on code switching. Using examples from Appalachian
English, African-American English and Cockney English, the varieties of English
are introduced. A further topic of this chapter is language and gender. The
author closes the book with a brief subsection on the future of English.

_Understanding Language_ is an entertaining introduction to the basic ideas of
the major areas of language, of how language is used and how it functions across
cultures. Using many real-life examples, the author thus introduces the tools
necessary for understanding the complex structure of a language. In addition,
this book is written in a very motivating and student-friendly way.

Concerning the choice of topics, the author has written a text book that is not
a traditional introduction to linguistics. It is a popular text that tries to
show how the linguistic subfields interact, rather than to treat them as
completely separate fields. But it does not cover all aspects of the field;
areas such as phonology, psycholinguistics or corpus linguistics are not
mentioned. Especially the mention of phonology would be desirable, as some of
the introduced features are phonological processes (such as the aspiration of
consonants depending on its position in a word, p. 89, p. 67). The chapter on
the history of English is appropriate for students in English-speaking countries
or students of English linguistics or philology, but not essential for a general
introduction to linguistics. Many subfields are reduced to the most important
aspects and presented in a simplified way. For example, the chapter on phonetics
is quite short as compared to the last chapter on language variation, which is
quite elaborate and might reflect the author's interest. The intention of the
book, however, is not to cover all subdisciplines, but rather to provide a basic
understanding of the field. Reduction or simplification is hereby necessary and
is in fact a challenging undertaking. The author acknowledges that the simple
definitions provided in the text book are intended for 'normal people' (p.1) and
not for linguists. In this sense, the author succeeds in creating a simple but
convincing story about linguistics. Sometimes, however, the claims or
conclusions appear too simple. One such example is the linguistic development of
Genie, which is used (just as in some other books) as supporting evidence for
the existence of a critical period (p. 45). The author however does not consider
important psychological factors on language development. In addition to the lack
of linguistic input, Genie did not grow up in a healthy social environment. This
example should hence be used in more relative terms, and not as direct evidence
for the critical period.

To explain the features of language and to show how theory applies to real life,
the author also uses many examples from everyday life, from books, cartoons,
movies or from her own experience. This writing style makes the reading easy and
enjoyable, and it is at the same time appropriate, because it matches the book's
intended readership. Some examples, however, are only accessible for the native
speaker of English. Also, the chapter on phonetics concentrates on English, and
thus seems to be designed for native speakers. Nevertheless, one of the
strengths of this textbook is the attempt to emphasize cross-linguistic
similarities and differences.

In summary, this book is well-suited for students and everyone else who wants to
learn about the basic structure of language. It is also very useful for
instructors, who will be able to find many examples and ideas of how to
introduce and explain complex topics. It is excellent for introductory purposes,
but less so for students of linguistics, as it does not go in great depth.
However, this book would be a nice tool also for those who want to find out
whether linguistics is something they want to pursue or study. And this book
should definitely convince them.

Adriana Hanulikova is in the final stage of her PhD at the Humboldt University
in Berlin. Her research interests lie in psycholinguistics. She has been working
on topics such as speech perception, spoken word recognition, phonetics and
phonology, second and first language acquisition, and morphosyntax. She is
especially interested in cross-linguistic comparisons.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 9780826484
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 272
Prices: U.K. £ 55.00
U.K. £ 12.99

Format: Electronic
ISBN-13: 9781441124111
Pages: 344
Prices: U.K. £ 17.99