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Review of  Why Do Linguistics?

Reviewer: Adriana Picoral
Book Title: Why Do Linguistics?
Book Author: Fiona English Tim Marr
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 26.4894

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The stated purpose of “Why do Linguistics?” is to encourage readers to see the world through a social linguistics lens. The authors argue that since language is everywhere and defines us as human beings, we all should be equipped with linguistic tools that help us become expert “language noticers.” Examples of everyday use of language, including some widespread language fallacies, are brought up and analyzed throughout the book. Thus, the volume is presented as an essential toolbox for every person that has a slight interest in how language works from a social perspective.

The book is divided into three sections, moving the authors’ argument for the study of linguistics from specific examples of language use to broader issues in language education.

Part One does exactly what the title, “Reflective linguistics,” suggests: it guides the reader through the analyses of a myriad of examples to reflect on what language is and how it is used. It goes over some language misconceptions and offers a broad overview of linguistics. This section is divided into 5 chapters. Chapter 1 covers concepts such as text, register, and semiotics. These terms are all illustrated by four examples of everyday language use, which include an email message and wall graffiti. These examples serve as springboard for discussion of the social relations, identities and attitudes embedded in these texts. Chapter 2 explores well-formed and ill-formed language, by trying to distance readers from expressions like “good” and “bad” language. The authors present here concepts such as prestige, standard language and correctness. Chapter 3 deals with notions of identity and community. Some of these concepts can be quite confusing, but the authors present short and clear definitions for each term. Chapter 4 offers a broad overview of language planning and policy. Finally, Chapter 5 goes beyond the English language and addresses how similar and different languages around the world are.

Part Two expands the idea of language awareness to include language analysis in more technical detail. Chapter 6 explores linguistic tools that can be used in three core areas of linguistics: semantics, morphosyntax, and phonetics and phonology. Chapter 7 builds on these tools to present a framework for discourse analysis. Chapters 8 and 9 both illustrate how discourse analysis can be applied to spoken and written communication, respectively. Chapter 10 focuses on semiotic resources we all have at hand to not only choose our words, but also shape what and how we are going to communicate.

In Part Three the authors answer the question that gives the book its title: why do linguistics? Chapter 11 introduces the concept of tranlanguaging, by exploring the affordances of multilingualism. The main purpose of Chapter 12 is to correct myths about language that are pervasive in the public domain. Some of the issues approached include commonly disseminated false etymology, school policies that discourage dialect use as a bad habit, and the perception of a pressing need to teach foreign languages to young children. Most of the examples are from cases in the UK, but these can be easily transferred to other contexts. Chapter 13 presents the case for teaching Language Awareness (LA) and Knowledge about Language (KAL) as part of a separate language subject in basic education. The authors argue that this type of linguistic knowledge is essential to understanding how the world works. The argument for training teachers and students at all levels in linguistics, as noted by the authors, has been raised by a number of scholars for over 50 years (see e.g. Halliday 1964 and 2007). However, as we all know, little change to school curricula regarding language education has actually been effected thus far.

Chapter 14 expands the argument for the importance of widespread linguistics education by presenting examples of how it can be extremely useful in the workplace. The examples provided include situations related to a wide range of professions, from doctors to police officers. Chapter 15 closes the book with a short summary of the three main reasons the authors claim that everyone should do linguistics: 1) it encourages new ways of thinking not only about your own language(s) but also about other languages and the world, 2) it should be part of anyone’s general knowledge, since it is an essential part of who we are as human beings, 3) it empowers every language user against prescriptive attacks.


The authors emphasize that this volume is meant neither as an introduction to linguistics nor as a linguistics textbook. Their targeted audience instead is the general public. Although the topics are presented in an accessible way, some familiarity (or willingness to make oneself familiar) with the terms used in linguistics is required. While the authors may have intended this to be a popular science book, I would not describe it as such. However, this volume could be a good starting point for students who may be interested in linguistics, since it can be used as an introductory overview of an impressive number of concepts. On the other hand, it also offers a good overall review for linguistics enthusiasts who already possess some knowledge of the field.

This would also be a good book for language teachers in general, since it raises interesting questions about language use. Many language teachers, who may not need (or want) to get too deep into linguistics, could benefit from this volume, which offers an overview of issues that are not necessarily related to grammatical accuracy. I would not recommend this book as the only source of linguistic knowledge, but it can be used as a springboard for classroom discussions in teacher education courses, especially in MA programs. There are a few exercises placed sporadically throughout the book that invite the reader to reflect deeper on the ideas presented. These could be especially useful in language teacher training.

It is important to note here that most of the texts analyzed are in British English, and the authors assume familiarity with both the language and the educational system in the UK. However, there are a few of examples from other languages and cultures, especially those the authors seem pretty familiar with, such as Peruvian Spanish. Other examples gathered from the authors’ previous students are also included.

Although the authors focus on communicative interactions, they present linguistics as a multifaceted field. The whole book is cohesive, guiding the reader from specific examples to broader issues in linguistics. It is evident that the authors are experienced teachers by how they explain and illustrate the many terms they use throughout the book. Chapter 1, for example, first introduces the idea that ‘text’ is a communication phenomenon that does not exist in isolation, encompassing much more than just words to include semiotic resources such as images. This definition of ‘text’ is explored throughout the book, with each chapter presenting a new way to look at and analyze a text. An example is found in Chapter 7, where the key concept of ‘context’ is explored in details.

Each chapter offers richly analyzed examples, which effectively illustrate concepts in linguistics. The concept of ‘mode’, i.e. different ways to express attitude when we communicate, is discussed in Chapter 10 through the analyses of extremely short email exchanges and two versions of the same product label. While the explanations provided are concise and clear, the book is dense, covering a broad range of notions. It is somewhat heavy on the use of terms, which could be seen as an overuse of jargon. When discussing issues of identity and identification, for example, the authors define in just a couple of paragraphs the concepts of linguistic community, speech community, community of practice and discourse community. However, I would argue that anyone who wants to be able to participate in discussions regarding language should know the most commonly used terms in the field.

Although not as comprehensive as technical volumes such as Yule (2014), “Why do Linguistics?” is heavy in content, especially considering its intended audience. Nonetheless, this is a highly readable book organized in a cohesive argumentative flow. Each chapter has an explicit stated purpose, and builds into the next chapter to give support to the authors’ main argument, i.e. linguistics is an essential subject that everyone should learn. Throughout the book, the authors refer back and forward to examples and ideas in other chapters. In addition, the transitions between chapters are smooth, helping the reader to make sense of the overall structure of the volume. There is also a short suggested reading list at the end of each chapter, which provides readers with extra resources in case they desire to seek a deeper understanding of some of the topics approached.

All in all, the authors do accomplish the stated purpose of the book, offering cogent arguments accompanied by illustrative and authentic examples of why we should all do linguistics. I am not sure they will reach most of their intended audience, i.e. lay people with a tendency to believe and spread language myths. I would say this book will probably fall in the hands of people who already understand that being a language user does not qualify someone as an expert observer of language. Hopefully, the authors will be able to gather enough people that believe in their cause to effect the necessary changes in how we all talk about language.


Halliday, M. A. K. (1964). The linguistic sciences and language teaching.

Halliday, M. A. K. (2007). Language and education (Vol. 9). A&C Black.

Yule, G. (2014). The study of language. Cambridge University Press.
Adriana Picoral is a PhD student in the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching program at University of Arizona. She holds a BSc in Computer Science, and an MA degree in TESOL from The New School. Her research interests include the study of human cognitive, language, literacy and learning processes in both formal and informal instructional contexts. She also has an interest in human language processing, discourse analysis and teacher education. Her ultimate goal is to design instructional procedures that enhance additional language learning.

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