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Review of  Introducing Linguistics

Reviewer: David M. Karaj
Book Title: Introducing Linguistics
Book Author: Joyce Bruhn de Garavito John W. Schwieter
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 32.3008

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As the title suggests, “Introducing Linguistics. Theoretical and Applied Approaches”, edited by Joyce Bruhn de Garavito and John W. Schwieter, is an introductory textbook in linguistics aimed at beginners to the field. Like any textbook, the main audience is students of linguistics but, in an attempt to appeal to the widest audience possible, “it is also geared towards those who are interested in language and communication in general” (p. xi). The book covers a wide range of topics in an attempt to illustrate the extensive array of subdisciplines and applications of linguistics.

The book follows a general structure resembling that of other introductory linguistic textbooks. It is divided into 8 parts – (1) “Introduction”, (2) “Sound”, (3) “Structure and Meaning”, (4) “Language Typologies and Change”, (5) “Language and Social Aspects”, (6) “Language Acquisition”, (7) “Language, Cognition, and the Brain”, and (8) “Brief Chapters on the Companion Website” (not included in the book but, as the name states, available on a website accompanying the book at The book ends with a Glossary of linguistic terms and an Index. This structure, as well as the contents of every chapter and their features, is presented in the Preface (xi-xvi) by the volume editors. Each chapter follows the same structure – it starts with a brief overview of the introduced material and ends with a summary and exercises. The chapters are enriched with pedagogical boxes, “Pause and Reflect” providing discussion stimuli and thought-provoking questions, “Linguistics Tidbits” and “Eyes on World Languages” giving students additional examples and various language facts. Like any introductory text, the titles of the chapters are largely self-explanatory.

Part 1 consists of a single chapter - “Introducing Linguistics”, written by the editors of the volume. It provides a concise introduction to what linguistics is, presents motivation for studying the discipline, points out a few common misconceptions about the study of language, and briefly presents various subfields of linguistics and its main objects of study. Finally, an overview of the book’s structure is provided, with brief explanations of what is covered in each chapter.

Part 2 – “Sound” consists of two chapters – “Phonetics” (Chapter 2, by Christine Shea and Sarah Ollivia O’Neill) and “Phonology” (Chapter 3, by Joyce Bruhn de Garavito). The former introduces students to speech production and guides them through the International Phonetic Alphabet and phonetic transcription. The latter introduces notions such as phonemes, allophones, minimal pairs, and syllables. This chapter is enriched with an Appendix explaining how to determine the phonemes of a given language.

Part 3 – “Structure and Meaning” consists of three chapters – “Morphology: Word Structure” (Chapter 4, by Joyce Bruhn de Garavito), “Syntax: Phrase and Sentence Structure” (Chapter 5, same author), and “Semantics: Language and Meaning” (Chapter 6, by Roumyana Slabakova). Chapter 4 explains word formation processes (derivation, inflexion, compounds, and others). In two appendices to this chapter, the author gives some criteria for identifying root and bound morphemes (Appendix 1, p. 156) and how to represent complex words with a tree structure (Appendix 2, pp. 157-158). Chapter 5 presents the concept of word classes and introduces the notion of constituents. It further explains how these categories interact in a sentence within the framework of the Minimalist Program (the X-bar schema and the operations Merge and Move are explained). The Appendix (pp. 209-215) guides the students step-by-step on how to represent a sentence with a tree diagram. Chapter 6 explores semantics, namely “meaning of words”, “meaning of sentences”, and various “approaches to the study of semantics”.

Part 4 – “Language Typologies and Change” starts with “The Classification of Languages” (Chapter 7. by Asya Pereltsvaig) – and explores the variety of ways in which linguists label the world’s languages, e.g. genetic, typological, as well as touching upon the notion of language universals. Chapter 8 – “Historical Linguistics” by Laura Grestenberger discusses language change on the levels of phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics.

The next part - (5) – “Language and Social Aspects” opens with Chapter 9 – “Sociolinguistics: Language in Society” (authored by Terry Nadasdi), which discusses aspects of language variation within individuals, subgroups, and in bilingual communities. Chapter 10 “Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis” by Maite Taboada, as the title states, focuses on pragmatics and discourse analysis. Next, Peter T. Daniels and John W. Schwieter explore the origins and evolution of various writing systems and their relationships with language (Chapter 11 - “Writing Systems”).

Part 6 (“Language Acquisition”), written entirely by John W. Schwieter, focuses on “First language acquisition” (Chapter 12) and “Second language acquisition” (Chapter 13). In these chapters different stages of communicative development are discussed, including phonological, vocabulary, morphological, and syntactic (in Chapter 12); special attention is dedicated to bilinguals. Chapter 13 presents some of the differences and similarities between first and second language acquisition, the development of L2, some of the factors affecting second language acquisition, briefly discusses language teaching and learning, and, finally, discusses popular approaches to the study of this subfield.

Part 7 (“Language Cognition and the Brain”, also authored entirely by John W. Schwieter) consists of two chapters – Chapter 14 “Psycholinguistics: Language processing”, and Chapter 15 “Neurolinguistics: Language and the Brain”. The former deals with the issue of language processing (including bilingual processing), psycholinguistic methods, and points to some ongoing debates in the field. Chapter 15 presents the parts of the human brain responsible for language and communication, and discusses various types of language impairment, as well as methods of studying the brain.

Finally, there are three short chapters not included in the book but which can be viewed on the book’s companion website. Together they form Part 8 – “Brief Chapters on the Companion Website”. Chapter 16 - “Animal Communication and Language” by Con Slobodchikoff explores the difference between language and communication, what information can be conveyed in animal communication, and illustrates these phenomena with two examples – prairie dog communication and honeybee communication. Chapter 17 – “Computational Linguistics” written by Robert E. Mercer discusses the notion of natural language and its ambiguities. It further introduces the concepts of computation, probabilities, and how they apply to Machine Learning. The last chapter, Chapter (18) – “English Varieties Outside of North America” by Daniel Schreier briefly touches upon the notion of English as a World Language, World Englishes, and the status of English globally.

The companion website containing the short chapters also provides some additional readings – “Delving Deeper”, written by the authors of the respective chapters from the book. Besides that, teachers may request access to “Instructor’s Materials” available on Cambridge Core websites. These include quizzes and PowerPoint presentations for each chapter, as well as figures and images used throughout the book.


My first impression on reading “Introducing Linguistics. Theoretical and Applied Approaches” is decidedly positive – its structure is clear, the chapters are subdivided into smaller sections which make the text easy to follow and allow the reader to stop and reflect after each new concept is introduced. The language of the textbook is simple and the tone is conversational – the reader won’t have difficulties understanding the phenomena described. The editors have done an excellent job, as there is no perceivable difference in style between the chapters – it reads as if the book were written by a single author. A quick glance at the table of contents shows that the authors wanted to present the multitude of applications of linguistics and to treat the topic comprehensively, giving students an opportunity to understand the vastness of the field and, possibly, triggering their increased interest in one of the subdisciplines. This is a great advantage of this textbook, as it gives the student an overview of what linguistics is about and allows them to follow their interests further. However, the textbook would greatly benefit from adding “Further reading” sections at the end of each chapter, in order to direct students to useful resources that might help expand their knowledge. Currently, only Chapters 10, 16, 17, and 18 contain such a section at the end; however, they should be extended as they contain very few recommendations, some of which I consider too advanced for students just beginning to learn linguistics.

Like any text, “Introducing Linguistics” is not free from various, more or less serious, drawbacks, which I shall point out below (not exhaustively, though). My first concern is the lack of citations. For instance, p. 246 mentions Goldberg, Kay, Fillmore, and Lakoff but does not include any appropriate citations (referencing only Lakoff at the end of the chapter). A similar situation is found in other chapters, some missing citations and references include Rappaport Hovav (p. 277); Greenberg (pp. 281 and 282); Chomsky (p. 281); Bowern (p. 312); to name a few. Similarly, many chapters do not provide sources of the presented data (e.g. Chapter 12, Chapter 14) and contain numerous sentences such as “research has shown…” or “there’s evidence that…” that aren’t followed by any citations. Therefore, a reader who is interested in discussed topics (or a particularly sceptical one!) cannot read the books or articles that support the presented statements.

Another concern is the quality (and number!) of linguistic examples. While the pedagogical boxes (“Linguistics Tidbits” and “Eyes on World Languages”) are an excellent idea, as they allow students to take a break from the main text, the information they contain unfortunately reads more like a set of language trivia that can be found on the Internet rather than stimulating facts from a textbook. While these boxes point to interesting phenomena in various languages, they generally do not provide many glossed examples (which would have been a great advantage!), making them more anecdotal. Moreover, they contain some inaccuracies and errors (including a few typos) that shouldn’t be found in a book about linguistics. To mention just a few examples: p. 460 Swahili ‘hakuna matata’ does literally mean ‘no problems’ rather than ‘be happy’, which could have been easily checked and leaves the impression that this information was found on a random Internet forum and was not verified; p. 256 (box “Pause and Reflect 7.2”) the Hungarian example ‘A zöld leguán felugrott egy levél’ is ungrammatical (expected form: ‘levélre’); p. 436 another Hungarian example – the word for ‘girl’ is ‘lány’ not ‘lany’; p. 381 on the same page two spellings of the Mandarin word for ‘woman’ ‘nǔ’ and ‘nü’ are found, the correct variant is ‘nǚ’. While such errors will not substantially affect the students’ understanding of the introduced phenomena, they are easily verifiable and should have been double-checked.

Other than a few errors in the language examples and a lack of citations, some of the exercises and discussion stimuli are a source of annoyance and should be revised or, in many cases, removed (the following examples are not exhaustive). Several exercises are quite awkward, for instance, Ex. 1.1. on p. 20 describes a murder scene and asks the students to discuss what could be “the policeman’s hypothesis in relation to the crime”, “what evidence did he find” and whether it supported his hypothesis, etc. Likely, the author’s intention was to introduce students to the scientific method, forming hypotheses and collecting evidence, but in this reviewer’s opinion such exercises may confuse students as its purpose is not immediately clear. Another “atypical” one is Exercise 9.6 on p. 354, which asks students for an opinion on the practice of some women changing their surnames upon marriage and its possible societal impact. While this might be a prompt for an interesting discussion, it seems to have very little to do with linguistics. Another bizarre exercise can be found on page 425 in “Pause and Reflect 12.4”. The box prompts the students to “ask a few English speakers to imitate how they think a baby or child would say the words” from Table 12.5 (p. 424) and to compare it with the syllable simplification processes described in the table and to ask whether their “imitations are plausible” from the point of view of language acquisition. The purpose of this exercise is not quite clear to me, and in my personal opinion, it might be harmful to the understanding of language acquisition-related phenomena as well as to the students’ research methods. One last example I’d like to mention here is the box “Pause and Reflect 15.8” on page 548. It reads: “Have you or anyone you know ever had an X-ray? What about a CT scan of the head? What were the doctors looking for?”. While clearly inspired by methods used in neurolinguistics, this particular question has nothing to do with linguistics and is a potential trigger for sensitive topics as it inquires about the details of the students’ health. In this reviewer’s opinion, questions of this kind should never be asked in class and as such this box should be removed from the textbook.

In sum, “Introducing Linguistics” evokes mixed feelings. Its strengths include complex treatment of the field of linguistics and its conversational tone, especially suitable for a young audience. In my personal opinion, some chapters stand out positively – Chapters 2, 3, and 4 provide an excellent introduction to phonetics, phonology, and syntax (including a very good introduction to drawing syntax trees in the Appendix), respectively, and I would be happy to recommend these to anyone interested in these aspects of linguistics. A few other chapters are often spoiled by bizarre remarks and exercises (as discussed above). I assume that the decision to put three short chapters on the accompanying website was dictated by issues of space (the book counts well over 600 pages) but at the same time I believe that the textbook could substantially improve by incorporating, at least in part, these texts in the printed edition – for instance an extended version of Chapter 16 would fit well as the Introduction to the book (I perceived the current Introduction to be a bit chaotic), as it touches upon some fundamental aspects such as differences between language and communication, which should have been spelt out in the Introduction. Similarly, Chapter 17 (“Computational Linguistics”) would be an appropriate addition to the printed book as interest in Machine Learning and Computational Linguistics has been steadily increasing in recent years and, in my view, it could give students an exciting opportunity to see the applicability of (sometimes abstract) linguistic concepts to new technologies. Given the above, I believe that “Introducing Linguistics” might be more suitable for students for whom linguistics is not their major field of studies. In any case, however, I am of the opinion that in the hands of an experienced instructor, and with carefully selected supplementary materials, “Introducing Linguistics. Theoretical and Applied Approaches” will constitute a good companion for those who are taking their first steps in the study of language and, hopefully, will encourage students to reach for more.
David M. Karaj is a PhD candidate in linguistics at the University of Pavia, Italy. His main research interests regard language typology, syntax and Malay historical linguistics.

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