- Linguistics: A very short introduction by Peter H. Matthews
Peter H. Matthews’s book consists of nine chapters, ‘The study of language’, ‘ “Homo loquens” ’, ‘Language in time and space’, ‘Language families’, ‘In praise of diversity’, ‘What is a language?’, ‘How much is systematic?’, ‘Sounds’, and ‘Language and the brain’, which are followed by a short ‘further reading’ section and an index.
Ch. 1 defines linguistics as the study and ‘science’ of language, pointing out some central features of this uniquely human phenomenon. The chapter deals with some central linguistic problems, in particular the missing one-to-one relationships between words and sounds and between meanings in different languages. Ch. 2 further explores the topic of the talking species, the ‘homo loquens’, and identifies speech as the central feature of our society, raising questions about the origin and structure of language and about the evolution of our species, such as, Do we learn through experience or are we genetically programmed to a certain extent?
Ch. 3 investigates language development and (mainly regional) variation, looking at phonological and lexical-grammatical features and referring, for instance, to William Labov’s early research. Variation is seen as both a product of and a potential for change. More information on language evolution and spread can be found in Ch. 4. It examines how languages relate to each other and how linguists go about reconstructing languages and parallels between them. Ch. 5 goes on to discuss the topic of interlanguage variation and praises diversity at different linguistic levels. The question is not only what features occur in some languages that are missing from others, but also whether and how people with different language backgrounds think and speak about the world in different ways.
Ch. 6 gets back to answering the question ‘What is a language?’ and suggests a definition of language as a system that includes contrasting forms and hence rules or regularities that determine choices in the system and evoke certain patterns. The concept of the language system is further discussed in Ch. 7. The chapter aims to determine which phenomena are central to the system and which are rather peripheral. It also makes observations concerning rules and deviations from them in real-life language.
Ch. 8 looks at contrasts between sounds and sound systems in different languages, covering both phonetic and phonological aspects, such as the articulation of stops, vowel harmony, or differences in sound transitions. By coming back to the subject of linguistic knowledge and by focusing on human beings as ‘brainy’ creatures, the last chapter of the book (Ch. 9) manages to close a circle. It raises one of the big unresolved issues in linguistics: Where, and especially how, is language controlled and synthesized in the brain?
M has performed the very difficult task of compressing a wealth of material and presenting it in a most accessible way. A pocket-size booklet of some 130 pages cannot, of course, replace any of the much more comprehensive 500 + -page introductions to linguistics, but it is a nice complement and a welcome addition to Oxford’s ‘Very short introductions’ series.