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Review of  Linguistics: An Introduction

Reviewer: Marcin Kuczok
Book Title: Linguistics: An Introduction
Book Author: William B McGregor
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 27.1391

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


William B. McGregor’s “Linguistics. An Introduction” constitutes an introductory course book on linguistics. The book is the fruit of the author’s experience in teaching linguistics at the university level in 2002. His intention in writing this 471-page volume is to create a new textbook for students, one that will overcome the various drawbacks McGregor found in the already existing course books. As he remarks in the preface to his book, these include the manner of presentation, which often lacks a clear layout of information, pedagogic philosophy, which hardly ever focuses on understanding linguistic facts, the range and type of information presented, which are usually limited to English, as well as the theoretical stance of being either atheoretical or adopting only the generative-grammar framework. The work is a revised edition of the version originally published in 2009 by Continuum International Publishing Group. The textbook is accompanied with the 138-page “Answer Key”, containing the author’s answers to the questions and exercises from the course book.


The book opens with an introductory chapter, which presents the notion of language and explains certain basic concepts related to the study of language, including the notion of linguistics, the nature of linguistic signs and the design features of human language. The rest of the book is divided into three parts, each of them containing five chapters.

The first part is titled “Language: System and Structure”, and it deals with a number of important terms of modern linguistics that pertain to the analysis of the various levels of the structural organization of language considered in itself and for itself. This approach to language study in John Lyons’ classic textbook on linguistics, titled “Language and Linguistics. An Introduction” (1981: 36-37) is called microlinguistics. The first chapter in this part of McGregor’s work presents human language as a system of sounds, introducing the problems studied by phonetics and phonology: the structure of the human vocal tract, types of phones, elements of prosody, the study of phonemes and the issue of transcription. The second chapter, titled “Structure of Words: Morphology” deals with the notion of the word, as well as such linguistic terms as ‘morphemes’, ‘allomorphs’ and ‘morphs’, and distinguishes between derivational and inflectional morphology. The next chapter of McGregor’s book is devoted to the lexicon. The problems discussed in this chapter revolve around the various categories of words or parts-of-speech, and around word-formation processes, the issue of idiomaticity of languages, as well as taboo that gives rise to euphemisms and dysphemisms. The fourth chapter in this part of the book presents the structure of sentences, which is the subject studied as syntax. The author introduces the notion of sentence, explains its hierarchical structure and presents the different syntactic units, such as clauses and phrases, pointing to their functions within a sentence. The last chapter in this section deals with the study of meaning. Actually, McGregor presents the basic notions of two linguistic sub-branches that are interested in the study of meaning: semantics and pragmatics. Thus, the readers are made familiar with the issues of sense and reference, lexical semantic relations, problems of literal and figurative meaning, the theory of speech acts, as well as the co-operative principle and the nature of presuppositions.

The second part of the book, titled “Language: A Human Phenomenon” contains five chapters that focus on what can be called the macrolinguistic approach (Lyons 1981: 36-37), that is, on the place of human language in the wider contexts of human life and culture. The first chapter is devoted to sociolinguistics: it discusses the phenomenon of regional varieties of languages, as well as the influence of socio-economic status, gender, and other factors on language. The author deals also with the issues of bilingual communities, language shift and endangerment. The next chapter studies the notions of text and discourse, pointing out the differences between them and introducing a number of basic terms related to either text or discourse analysis: genre, coherence, cohesion and spoken interaction. The chapter titled “Psycholinguistics: Language, the Mind and the Brain” focuses on the relationships between language and cognition, especially on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as well as on language production and comprehension at the levels of brain structures and mental processing. The aim of the next chapter is to present the main problems of both first and second language acquisition, guiding the reader through the various stages of language development in a human being from his or her early childhood to maturity. The last chapter in the second part of the book offers a comparison between human language and the different means of communication discovered in the animal world. The chapter undertakes also the problems of communication between people and animals, as well as the question of the origins of human language.

The last part of the book is titled “Language: Uniformity and Diversity” and the five chapters included in this section concentrate on the variety and variation in languages across the world. The first chapter in this section concerns the use of gestures in communication and the nature of sign languages. The author presents primary sign languages used to communicate by deaf people and alternate sign languages that can be found in communities of hearing people that already have a spoken language. The following chapter focuses on writing as an alternative medium of using human language. The author offers an overview of the various writing systems in the world, both past and present, and then highlights selected properties of the written language, including electronic writing that appeared only recently, with the spread of computers and birth of the Internet. In the chapter titled “Unity and Diversity in Language Structure” McGregor presents the issue of language universals and linguistic typology according to phonological, morphological and syntactic properties of languages. The next chapter aims at analyzing the phenomenon of language change. The author presents the causes and the main directions of language evolution throughout the ages, including structural and semantic changes. The last chapter in this section, which is the final chapter of the whole book, constitutes a presentation of the various language families in today’s world.

The accompanying booklet with the subtitle “Answer Key” contains sixteen chapters that correspond to the chapters from the textbook and provide solutions to the exercises that are included at the end of each chapter in the book. As McGregor writes in the preface to the “Answer Key”, some of the questions have obvious answers, while others are more or less open-ended. The author suggests that any working solution provided by students should be accepted since the aim of the exercises is to teach students how to solve linguistic problems with the use of the knowledge presented during the course. It is worth noticing that in the appendices the author gives examples of two oral presentations that can be used as part of an introductory course to linguistics. One of them aims at preparing a biography of a linguist and the other one is a model presentation of a selected language.


When it comes to the contents of the book, William B. McGregor’s “Linguistics. An Introduction” provides readers with a wide range of topics in contemporary linguistics, from the nature of linguistics as a science to the analysis of linguistic structures: sounds, words, and sentences, to the study of meaning, to issues of sociolinguistics, biolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and neurolinguistics, to language acquisition, to history of language, to the variety of languages and language forms in the twenty-first century world. It bears emphasizing that the presentation of each topic and sub-discipline of linguistics encompasses the latest research results published by the most prominent linguists from the whole world.

Another important advantage of “Linguistics. An Introduction” is the fact that the book includes the theories and results of research into language from various schools of linguistics. While reading the book, we come across elements of structuralism, and generativism, as well as functional linguistics and cognitivism. Even the proportions between the chapters devoted to the study of language as such, and the analysis of language in contexts of other scientific disciplines show clearly that McGregor considers language to be a human faculty that by its nature exceeds any attempts to restrict it to autonomous forms and structures, but which, being above all a means for communication, permeates different aspects or areas of human life and activity.

Although McGregor’s textbook is written in English and as such will probably attract mostly academics and students either from the English-speaking countries or students of the English language from other countries in the world, the reader will quickly notice that the book contains numerous study examples from and references to other languages, including the endangered ones. In fact, at the end of the book we find a five-page index of all the languages mentioned or discussed in the text. Thanks to that “Linguistics. An Introduction” may be an interesting reading also to students of linguistics whose interests focus on other languages, or who are willing to increase their knowledge of the dynamically developing science of language.

However, despite all the advantages of McGregor’s book it may seem that similar works in the field of linguistics with comparable merits already exist and function as good source texts for students at the university level. For instance, a similar – though not exactly the same – diversity of linguistic problems explained on the basis of English and other languages, described in a student-friendly language, and accompanied with exercises for students, has been included in such widely acclaimed textbooks as George Yule’s “The Study of Language” (2014) or O’Grady, Aronoff, Archibald and Rees-Miller’s “Contemporary Linguistics. An Introduction” (2009). Both these publications offer also a broad perspective on language and their theoretical stance exceeds the formal-linguistic approach. Thus, the question is: Is there anything about McGregor’s work that distinguishes his book, making it different from the already existing entry-level course books on linguistics?

What deserves a special attention is the pedagogical dimension of McGregor’s textbook. Not only does the work offer a section with diversified questions for students after each chapter, but what is more, each of them opens with a short outline of the contents, a table with key terms and a list of clearly presented goals. Furthermore, after each chapter there is a summary, presenting the most important notions and issues discussed in the chapter, followed by a guide for further reading, including the most recent publications on the topic, and a set of exercises, helping students to put the newly gained knowledge into practice. Also, the publisher’s website contains a special section with extra questions concerning the topics in the book, available online for free to both teachers and students. Additionally, the language of the presentation is adjusted to the needs of students: linguistic problems are presented in an inviting, student-friendly way, thanks to which even non-native speakers of English will easily understand the complicated linguistic issues. What is more, the most important notions are included in special boxes inserted into the main text of the chapters, which helps students control their understanding of the new material. Then, at the end of McGregor’s course book there is a glossary with concise definitions of the most important terms for a beginning student of linguistics, followed by an exhaustive list of references, and indices: of languages that were presented in the book, of important names that appeared in the work, as well as of linguistic notions discussed in the text. Finally, numerous tables, figures and maps support the explanations in the book, making it both instructive and pleasant reading.

To sum up, the pedagogical merits make McGregor’s “Linguistics. An Introduction” a special publication, and they allow the work to compete with the similar textbooks read worldwide during university courses of linguistics. I wholeheartedly recommend the book to both teachers and students of language. Personally, I am going to take advantage of all the merits this textbook offers in my classroom with students of English philology.


Lyons, John. 1981. Language and Linguistics. An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Grady, William & Mark Aronoff & John Archibald & Janie Rees-Miller (eds.). 2009. Contemporary Linguistics. An Introduction. 6th edn. Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Yule, George. 2014. The Study of Language. 5th edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marcin Kuczok is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of English at the University of Silesia, Poland, where he graduated with an MA in English Philology in 2005 and a PhD in English Linguistics in 2012. He also received an MA in Theology from University of Opole in 2003. His academic interests revolve around cognitive semantics, especially the theory of conceptual metaphor and metonymy and the theory of conceptual blending, as well as their applications to studying religious language, describing the axiological parameter of language, and analyzing English and Polish word-formation processes.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781472577665
Pages: 152
Prices: U.K. £ 5.99