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Review of  Languages

Reviewer: Dibella Wdzenczny Caminsky
Book Title: Languages
Book Author: Stephen R. Anderson
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.3192

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‘Languages: A Very Short Introduction’, by Stephen R. Anderson, is one of the newest releases in the ‘Oxford Very Short Introduction’ series. It is a small book in height, width, and girth; it is only 129 pages long and includes eight chapters along with references, a list for further reading, and an index. It is not an overview of the entire field of Linguistics (for that, see another book in this series, Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction (Matthews 2003)). Much of the book centers on the classification and enumeration of languages, as well as topics tangential to questions surrounding these issues. Anderson also draws many parallels between linguistic science and biology. Overall, the book is primarily aimed at interested non-linguists.

Chapter 1 is titled ‘Introduction: dimensions of linguistic diversity’. Here, a basic question is raised: How many languages are there? A brief discussion is given (before returning to the topic in the next chapter), including the different ways of measuring the number of languages. Next, the taxonomy of languages is compared to taxonomy in biology, and finally, the topics of later chapters are summarized.

Chapter 2, titled ‘How many languages are there in the world?’, examines the issues raised in the Introduction in further detail. This chapter shows that the question of the number of languages spoken in the world is not a trivial one at all, but rather one of great interest, and also explains why; this book examines how language can be separated from ethnicity, political boundaries, and genetics, dispelling notions commonly held by non-linguists. Specifically, Anderson touches on the general notions of ‘Chinese’ and ‘Arabic’ as single languages; calling these single ‘languages’ is quite misleading, and even though they have very high numbers of speakers, they are quite internally diverse. Anderson notes that these internal diversities are often called ‘dialects’ rather than the distinct languages that they are, and he continues the discussion about this topic throughout the book, especially in Chapter 5.

Chapter 3, ‘Phylogenetic linguistics: establishing linguistic relationships’, examines the historical genetic relationships between languages. It begins with a general comparison of linguistic evolution to biological evolution, highlighting parallels between the two branches of science (e.g. two related languages (or species) diverging from a common ancestor), and that changes in one branch of a genetic family may not be reflected in another, resulting in speciation. This chapter discusses many interesting questions about historical change, such as how such relationships are determined, rates of change, time depth, and why languages change in the first place. Mechanisms of change, along with several tables of cognate sets in familiar languages, are also presented.

Chapter 4, titled ‘The future of languages’, addresses issues surrounding endangered languages, and specifically, what linguistics as a science stands to lose: basic information about human cognition, possible human languages, and the understanding of linguistic history. Anderson again draws parallels with biology, commenting on the concern for endangered species, but a lack thereof for endangered languages. The indigenous language situation in North America is discussed as an example, and the different facets of endangered knowledge are also enumerated. Finally, the chapter ends with a consideration of how language contact and language death affect endangered languages. Here, he acknowledges that when a language dies, “a world dies with it, in the sense that a community’s connection with its past, its traditions, and its base of specific knowledge are all typically lost when the vehicle linking people to that knowledge is abandoned” (pg. 58).

Chapter 5 investigates issues surrounding the definition of language, and is appropriately titled ‘Some problems in the counting of languages’. It discusses the role of social identity, as in the case of Serbo-Croatian (considered a single language by linguists, but separate by speakers) or the case of ‘Chinese’ as stipulated by the Chinese government (i.e. all Chinese languages are dialects of one language with a unified writing system) and caveats around the traditional linguistic definition of “mutual unintelligibility”. as well as problems with counting languages simply by considering numbers of speakers or countries. Anderson illustrates these points with examples of asymmetrical intelligibility (i.e. where speaker A understands speaker B, but not vice versa), such as that among Scandinavian languages, or in the case of Bulgarian and Macedonian, where Bulgarian speakers consider Macedonian a dialect of Bulgarian, but Macedonian speakers consider themselves as speaking a separate language.

Chapter 6, ‘The genotypes of languages’, is essentially an account of generative typology, offering an explanation of the concepts of E-language (i.e. external language, or language produced by speakers), I-language (i.e. internal language, or the linguistic representation that exists in the mind), and generative parameters (i.e. binary possibilities in language, such as Verb-Object versus Object-Verb word order).

Chapter 7, ‘The diversity of signed languages’, contains information about sign languages. It reviews common misconceptions about signed languages (e.g. the notion that sign languages are merely analogs or physical representations of spoken languages, or that all sign languages are very similar) and discusses how linguists consider such languages to fit into our overarching framework of human language Anderson examines how sign languages can originate spontaneously, and shows that they are organized hierarchically just like spoken language. Also mentioned is how signs are not necessarily consistently iconic, and that this abstract representation is much akin to the idea of the phoneme. Many diagrams of different signs in different sign languages are included in this chapter for reference.

Chapter 8, ‘Conclusion: the unity of human language’, brings together the material discussed in the rest of the book, and also offers further comparisons of language with other human biological systems (e.g. human vision) and with ‘languages’ of other species. It ends with a discussion of Chomsky’s core linguistic hypotheses, such as the poverty of the stimulus and I-language parameters.


While typically a book with just 129 small pages would make for a very short review, Anderson’s book packs an impressive amount of information into a handy size. As the series’ tagline says, these introductions are “stimulating ways in to [sic] new subjects” and are not aimed at academic specialists (in this case, linguists). While the text is exceptionally accurate, thorough, and up-to-date, very little of the information presented here extends beyond what might be found in upper-level undergraduate courses in linguistics. This is no failing of the book, given that its intended audience is the non-academic, general public. Indeed, ‘Languages: A Very Short Introduction’ is an outstandingly well-written reference that will easily hold the interest of non-linguists and provide them with a thorough overview of the field with regard to language diversity. Given its reasonable price of $11.95, I would highly recommend this volume to undergraduates considering majoring in linguistics, to linguistics graduate students looking for a gift for family members (many of whom have the question “So what exactly is linguistics?”), to linguistics departments to keep on hand for interested students and potential majors, and to anyone who has ever been the slightest bit curious about diversity in human language. The book’s size allows it to fit very easily into a pocket (or a Christmas stocking).

Virtually every common misconception about languages in general is addressed in this volume. Particular issues addressed are: multilingualism is actually quite common (pg. 13); language change is inevitable (pg. 23); language loss includes the loss of cultural knowledge (pg. 45); ‘What is a language?’ is a rather difficult question (Ch. 5); differences in grammars have common cognitive underpinnings (pg. 83); signed languages are full-fledged languages and not just metarepresentations of other media (pg. 91); and clarification of specific Chomskyan ideas (Ch. 8). These explanations are exceptionally helpful for non-specialists, and also resolve issues that linguists are often frustrated to have to explain and demystify over and over to others.

Many core experts on primary linguistic subjects are cited, including a dedication to the late Ken Hale at the very beginning of the book. Other linguistics resources are cited as well, such as Language Log (pg. 1), and Ethnologue (pg. 11), making the book a valuable resource for interested readers to explore linguistics and languages beyond the text itself.

A variety of illustrative images, such as family trees, languages area maps, and sign language diagrams are used in relevant chapters. For example, Chapter 7 includes a diagram comparing the sign for ‘tree’ in different signed languages (pg. 95), which helpfully illustrates topics in the chapter and gives the reader visual evidence that signed languages are cross-linguistically similar (one of the topics discussed in that chapter). Chapter 8 contains several bracketed diagrams and syntax trees to illustrate different generative principles surrounding the idea of constituents and parametric variation.

The chapter on signed languages is an excellent inclusion, especially since the book is intended for non-specialists. Too often, signed languages are not included in discussions of human language. It is certainly an important inclusion, and the chapter is exceptionally well thought out and contains both basic and more complex discussions about signed language as a type of human language.

The book focuses primarily on grammatical and historical aspects of linguistics, rather than on sociolinguistics (which is better addressed in ‘Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction’). Another caveat (or plus, depending on the linguist) is that the approach taken in explaining particular ideas about human language as a genetic endowment is largely generative/Chomskyan. Of course, any book about linguistics or languages would do itself a disservice to ignore the contributions of Chomsky to the science of linguistics, but it seems that the diversity of human languages is slightly downplayed in favor of ‘I-language as parametric variation’ and that linguistic structural variety is limited. Considering that the first seven chapters of the book are dedicated to linguistic diversity of form, one almost gets the sense that the final chapter has the punch line “Well, it’s not all that different after all”, undoing much of what was said previously. To his credit, Anderson explicitly states where his biases lie when they are appropriate (pg. 119), and this is quite understandable. While the factual presentation of many different (competing) theories in linguistics is sufficient and accurate, generative approaches are given preference.

In conclusion, ‘Languages: A Very Short Introduction’ is an excellent resource for those interested in linguistics and who are not (yet?) specialists. The book gives plenty of information and clear explanations for basic ideas in linguistics regarding topics surrounding languages (as opposed to specific linguistic subfields or phenomena), and could easily encourage further exploration by interested readers. There is enough detail within the book that even well-versed linguists might find something new, or at least a new perspective, on something they are already familiar with. This book may be a bit too basic to be a textbook for a linguistics course, but it might be a decent choice for various ‘additional readings’ on an introductory course syllabus. Anderson does a remarkable job of explaining complex linguistic concepts without opaque technical jargon and through plenty of illustrative examples. Its size makes it handy and easily readable, and this fact might make it more appealing to non-linguists as a fun gift or travel book.


Matthews, P.H. 2003. Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Dibella Wdzenczny is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her primary interests include historical linguistics, case systems, and the indigenous languages of Siberia and the Americas. She is also interested in pedagogy in linguistics for both university students and indigenous communities.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780199590599
Pages: 144
Prices: U.S. $ 11.95