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Review of  The 5 Minute Linguist

Reviewer: Martin R. Gitterman
Book Title: The 5 Minute Linguist
Book Author: Caroline Myrick Walt Wolfram
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 31.1619

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With the intent of providing non-linguist readers with some understanding of the broad range of topics subsumed under the heading of Linguistics, the editors include 66 “bite-sized” chapters organized into 12 sections in this book. This work is an outgrowth of radio chats (“Talkin’ About Talk”) dating back to 2005, with this edition of the book containing both new chapters and revised chapters from earlier editions, all aimed at making the work current. It is the stated hope of the editors that the target audience (namely, the public) will be moved by these “bite-sized” treatments to explore aspects of linguistics in greater depth. The title of each chapter in the book is phrased in the form of a question. Biographical statements of contributing authors are provided as are recommended readings for each of the topics covered. The word limit constraints make it impractical to refer to each of the 66 chapters in this Summary, but reference to four chapters in each of the sections should provide readers with a sense of the overall scope of each section. Chapters chosen for inclusion are not based on any evaluation metric, but are intended solely to enable readers to gain an awareness of the book’s content and overall organization.

In the first section of the book (“What is linguistics?”), the chapters lay the basic foundation for the material to follow. Paul Chapin (in “You’re a linguist? How many languages do you speak?”) distinguishes “polyglots” from “linguists” and alludes to the diverse specializations of linguists. G. Tucker Childs (in “What is the difference between dialects and languages?”) indicates that the definitional distinction between the terms “dialects” and “languages” is a very complex one, also noting that dialects are equally valid linguistically. Beyond that, dialects and languages are spoken concurrently. That is, each time one speaks one is speaking both a dialect and a language. M. Paul Lewis (in “How many languages are there in the world?”) points out that a lack of agreement on which varieties should count as separate languages complicates the task of specifying the number of languages in the world. Notwithstanding that challenge, attempts at quantification have been made. Greg Carlson (in “Why is Chomsky such a big deal in linguistics?”) touches on details of Chomsky’s views dating back to his theory of transformational-generative grammar. His more recent work on universal grammar is also addressed.

The second section of the book (“Language structure”) begins with “How are the sounds of language made?” by Peter Ladefoged wherein readers are presented with some introductory principles of articulatory phonetics. Reference is made, for example, to the role of the lips in producing some sounds. Features such as voicing and aspiration are also touched on. The role of the phonetician is described. Dennis R. Preston (in “What is the right way to put words together?”) highlights some of the shortcomings of a prescriptivist approach to language. In “What makes a word ‘real’?,” Anne Curzan cautions readers not to look upon dictionaries as absolutely authoritative, recognizing, of course, that they do have a useful role. Those who compile dictionaries take their lead from how people are in reality using language. Caroline Myrick (in “What is grammatical gender?”) explains the notion of grammatical gender with illustrations from different languages. Questions awaiting answers in the domain of grammatical gender assignment are raised.

In the third section of the book (“Language and communication”), “What happens if you are raised without language?” by Susan Curtiss emphasizes the importance of age in the acquisition of language. Lack of exposure to language during the early childhood years (a rare occurrence, fortunately) will have a detrimental effect on the capacity to acquire language in subsequent years. Genie, one widely reported case (about whom Susan Curtiss did extensive research) was deprived of exposure to language until approximately age 13 and when exposed to language was unable to develop a functioning grammar. Other reported cases provide confirming evidence. Robin Queen (in “Can animals understand us?”) suggests that the ability of animals to comprehend human language is extremely minimal. In the area of interpreting nonverbal cues, however, performance by animals is more impressive. Walt Wolfram (in “What is ‘speaking in tongues’?”) provides an example of “speaking in tongues” (known, more formally, as “glossolalia”). The use of glossolalia is rather widespread and has attracted the attention of researchers. Some findings are presented. Peter T. Daniels (in “How many kinds of writing system are there?”) provides an introductory overview of writing systems, emphasizing the multitude of such systems currently used. Reference is made to a range of languages. Arika Okrent and E. M. Rickerson (in “Whatever happened to Esperanto?”) report that Esperanto, unlike other attempts to design a universal language, has had some success. Details on current use are presented.

In the fourth section of the book (“Language and thought”), Lise Menn (in “Why do linguists study brains?”) points out that only a subset of linguists are engaged in the study of brains. The chapter presents numerous reasons for such study, including the importance of neurolinguistic research in clinical settings. Geoffrey K. Pullum (in “Does our language influence the way we think?”) argues that language has only a minimal effect on thought. Judith F. Kroll and Kinsey Bice (in “How does the brain handle multiple languages?”) discuss current views on language localization in the brain, code-switching and the cognitive benefits attributed to bilingualism. In “Can you lose language?” by Daniel Kempler and Mira Goral, it is pointed out that impairment generally does not entail a complete loss of language. The notion of language loss is discussed in the context of aphasia, dementia and first language attrition.

Section Five of the book (“History of language”) includes “What was the original language?” by Barry Hilton, in which readers learn that the question serving as the title of the chapter is really unanswerable. Relevant issues from historical linguistics are an integral part of the discussion. Allan R. Bomhard (in “Do all languages come from the same source?”) introduces the concept of language families and discusses language reconstruction, emphasizing that much remains to be discovered about the source of languages. E. M. Rickerson (in “What language did Adam and Eve speak?”) explains that the language spoken by Adam and Eve is unknown to linguists. Speculative suggestions over the years, not grounded in linguistic theory, are reported. Joan Bybee (in “Where does grammar come from?”) explains what is meant by grammar and provides examples of the development of aspects of grammar over time.

The sixth section of the book (“Language variation and change”) includes “Do languages have to change?” by John McWhorter. Examples of language change in grammar, words and pronunciation are provided, all central to the discussion of the undeniable certainty of language change. John M. Lipski (in “Aren’t pidgins and creoles just bad English?”) explains the process by which pidgins and eventually creoles are formed. Central to the chapter is the point that these are “legitimate languages” which merit the respect granted to other languages. Leila Monaghan (in “Do Deaf people everywhere use the same sign language?”) explains that sign languages possess a level of complexity virtually indistinguishable from that found in spoken languages. Not surprisingly, colleges in the United States commonly allow students to take American Sign Language (ASL) to fulfill their language requirement. ASL is only one of a number of sign languages used in the world. Deborah Cameron (in “Do men and women talk differently?”) suggests that there are some differences in talk associated with gender, but argues that beliefs about such differences are often contrary to fact.

Section seven of the book (“Language learning”) contains “How do babies learn their mother tongue?” by Lauren J. Stites, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek. This chapter addresses the automaticity of language acquisition. Chronological development of language is discussed with illustrative examples from different components of language. Richard Hudson (in “How many languages can a person learn?”) asserts that the maximum number of languages one can learn is unanswerable. While it is clear that individuals can (and do) readily acquire five or six languages, cases of individuals knowing well beyond that number have been reported. Steven H. Weinberger (in “What causes foreign accents?”) alludes to the phenomenon of “cross-linguistic influence” to explain the presence of foreign accents. The critical period is also an integral part of the discussion. Agnes Bolonyai (in “What does it mean to be bilingual?”) presents a current definition of “bilingualism” supported by linguists, contrasting it with a view of bilingualism once embraced by some, but now considered “outdated” and lacking any linguistically justifiable basis of support.

The eighth section of the book (“Language and society”) includes “What is the connection between language and society?” by Jon Forrest, a chapter which introduces readers to dialect variation, both regional and social. Central to the discussion is the fact that dialects differ from each other, but they are equally valid. Vijay Gambhir (in “How can a country function with more than one official language?”) reports that countries vary greatly regarding policy on establishing official languages, with some countries, such as the United States, having no official language and others. such as India, having many. The chapter provides a rather detailed overview of the language picture in India. Paul R. Garrett (in “Why do people fight over language?”) points out that disputes over language are typically intertwined with other issues, “political power,” for example. The dispute between speakers of French and speakers of English in Canada is among the issues discussed. In the final chapter of the section Caroline Myrick (in “What is gendered language?”) provides examples of the priority status granted to masculine over feminine forms in language, thus illustrating gendered language. Attempts to rid languages of this “masculine default,” a currently evolving effort, are discussed.

Included in section nine (“Language in the United States”) is “What is the language of the United States?” by David Goldberg, noting that the United States is anything but a monolingual country. The Modern Language Association compiles (and makes available) extensive information about language use in the United States. Some data are reported. Julie Tetel Andresen (in “Is there a language crisis in the United States?”) argues that the educational system in the United States must put a greater emphasis on the study of foreign languages, including those languages needed for the United States to ensure its own security. In “Are American dialects dying?,” Walt Wolfram points out that dialect differences remain as evident as ever in the United States. While some dialects are no longer spoken, new ones are heard. The complexity of dialect differences remains amid constant change. In “What is African American English?,” Nicole Holliday traces the historical development of African American English, emphasizing the rule-governed nature of the dialect and commenting on some of its features, both segmental and suprasegmental.

The tenth section (“Language and technology”) contains “How is language used in social media?,” where Lauren Squires aims to refute an all too common belief that the language of social media does not measure up to other uses of language. Trude Heift (in “Can computers teach languages faster and better?”) states that technology can play an instrumental role in language instruction, but, with all of its advantages, it is still unable to meet all of a language learner’s needs, some of which can only be provided by a teacher. In “How good is machine translation?,” Kevin Knight explains some of the reasons machine translation is an extremely challenging task. A look at how it has evolved over the years reveals a trajectory marked by growing accuracy, but there remains a need for additional improvement. In “Is text messaging changing how I write and speak?,” Joel Schneier provides examples of expressions commonly found in texts. While suggesting that texting does influence our writing and speaking, Schneier asserts that texting does not have a major impact on our speaking.

In the eleventh section (“Language and education”) Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson (in “Why should educators care about linguistics?”) stress the need for teachers to be informed about linguistics. Without such knowledge teachers run the risk of harboring misconceptions about particular language varieties spoken by students. Pedagogical practices based on these misconceptions can be extremely detrimental to students. Richard Hudson (in “Should schools teach grammar?”) argues that grammar, properly taught, has many positive outcomes. Gladys C. Lipton (in “Is elementary school too early to teach foreign languages?”) strongly supports teaching foreign languages to children in primary school and enumerates advantages of so doing. She reports that teaching young children foreign languages is established practice in a number of countries. Phillip M. Carter (in “What is bilingual education?”) explains the term “bilingual education,” noting that it can be used to denote a multitude of program-types. It is argued that students benefit greatly from bilingual education.

The book concludes with the twelfth section (“Language application”) including “How are dictionaries made?,” in which Erin McKean reports that dictionaries are based mainly on how people are actually using language, thus serving more as a “descriptive” than a “prescriptive” reference. The rather recent innovation of online dictionaries enables lexicographers to provide more detail about dictionary entries. Kevin Hendzel (in “Why do we need translators if we have dictionaries?,”) distinguishes the role of a “translator” from that of an “interpreter” and discusses the particular expertise needed in each of these roles, thus making readily apparent the need for training programs. Fortunately, such programs are growing in number. Tracy Hirata-Edds, Mary S. Linn, Marcellino Berardo, Lizette Peter, Gloria Sly and Tracy Williams (in “How are endangered and sleeping languages being revitalized?”) report on both the importance of revitalizing languages and current efforts to achieve that objective. In “Can you use language to solve crimes?,” Natalie Schilling describes how linguists can play an important role in helping adjudicate criminal cases. Actual cases are included in the discussion, one in which William Labov played an instrumental role in resolving.


The editors of the book, Caroline Myrick and Walt Wolfram (M and W), took on what could be a rather daunting task, that of compiling a volume of 66 chapters, and produced an end product that flows seamlessly for the reader. The seamless flow can be attributed to the consistency in style and level of difficulty (with little or no knowledge about linguistics assumed on the part of the reader) across chapters. The particular chapters chosen for inclusion within each of the 12 sections of the book add to the reader-friendly quality of the book. M and W had as a goal informing the target audience (namely, the public/the non-linguist) about a range of topics “in an informative, entertaining, and accessible format.” (p. 1). That goal was clearly achieved. The editors expressed the hope that readers would become sufficiently motivated after reading the book to delve more deeply into the study of linguistics. That outcome is highly likely given the overall quality of the book

The book contains many strengths, one of which is providing readers with more than a purely superficial knowledge about linguistics, and doing so in very short chapters that avoid highly technical language. Readers learn, for example, facts about language and language use, some of which differ greatly from beliefs held by segments of the public. A knowledge of these facts can play a utilitarian role. Societal benefits can result from actions rooted in an understanding of these established facts. Holliday, for example, in reference to African American English (AAE), states, “Though AAE may sometimes be stigmatized as ‘bad English’ or ‘poor grammar,’ It is a rule-governed variety of English, which is primarily only stigmatized due to discriminatory language ideologies” (p. 251). A more widespread appreciation of the fact that dialects differ, but are equally valid, can only help move society in the direction of cherishing all dialects, a truly beneficial outcome. In another chapter, also aimed at debunking erroneous beliefs, Andresen correctly argues that there is insufficient awareness on the part of many, including policy makers, of the pressing need to increase the study of foreign languages. She aptly asserts, “…..the single most important factor in solving the crisis is for linguists and other language professionals to become education policy activists. Foreign language learning must be part of a core curriculum!” (p. 239). Informing readers of needed reform in foreign language education can increase the likelihood of seeing desired reform come to fruition, with all of its benefits. The book is, in effect, helping this effort by getting the word out. To provide a final example, Carter reports on the opposition that is often found to bilingual education (which, as mentioned above, represents a range of program-types), pointing out why such opposition is unjustified. Carter correctly asserts, “…..lack of bilingual education can further exacerbate inequality along racial, ethnic, and linguistic lines” (p. 305). These examples (which represent only a subset of those found in the book) enable readers to begin to distinguish valid beliefs from erroneous assumptions in the public mindset, thus making readers potential advocates for actions/policies that are advantageous.

Another praiseworthy feature of the book is the extensive range of subfields within the discipline of linguistics included in the volume. The breadth of topics touched on provides readers with a realistic picture of the scope of linguistics. While the volume understandably does not address formal syntax, phonology and semantics in any detail, the editors still provide readers with a sense of more theoretical aspects of linguistics, but in a manner appropriate for the target audience of non-linguists (see, for example, the chapters by Chapin, Carlson and Ladefoged). Phrasing the title of each chapter as a question is an effective way to capture the attention of potential readers. Anyone who peruses the chapter titles in the Contents is likely to find a number of questions that they have already wondered about as well as others that pique their interest. The inclusion of recommended readings at the end of each chapter is also commendable as it facilitates the process by which interested readers can do additional reading.

Each of the 66 chapters of the book contributes to the overall praiseworthiness of the book. While individual chapters were selected to illustrate particular strengths of the book above, there is no implication that the other chapters contribute less to the end product. There are no weak links in the chain, and that is an impressive feat considering the number of chapters in the book. There is every reason to believe that this book will be well received by a wide audience of non-linguists. It is hoped (and expected) that the readership includes interested individuals in the general public as well as students in basic social science or humanities classes where the curriculum has a unit (or units) calling for an introductory knowledge of language/linguistics.

Even with books that are outstanding, such as the one being reviewed here, there are typically some suggestions that can be made for the authors or editors to consider in future editions. As this book is in its third edition, the prospect of future editions is deemed likely, one would assume. The use of illustrations or tables might strengthen certain, already excellent, chapters The chapter on types of writing systems (Daniels), for example, might be enhanced with actual examples of different systems in a table. Similarly, in the chapter aimed at quantifying the number of languages in the world (Lewis), the addition of a table listing the approximate number of speakers for each of the most widely spoken languages (if possible, going beyond the languages currently indicated) might be useful. In the chapter by Daniels, change “kinds of writing system” to “kinds of writing systems.” Finally, it might be helpful to pose questions at the end of each chapter. Interested readers would welcome questions as they would provide a useful “next step” in learning about a particular topic.

In sum, The Five-Minute Linguist is a very solid work, one which sets out to achieve a very worthy goal and indisputably succeeds in that effort.
Martin R. Gitterman is Professor Emeritus at Lehman College and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. He served for six years as Executive Officer of the Ph.D. Program in Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at The Graduate Center and prior to that for six years as Chair of The Department of Speech and Theatre at Lehman College. His areas of specialization include second language acquisition, bilingualism and neurolinguistics.

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