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Reviewed by:
  • All about language
  • James R. Hurford
All about language. By Barry J. Blake. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xvii, 322. ISBN 9780199238498. $29.95.

Barry Blake’s book is an introduction ‘aimed at the general reader and at students of language and linguistics’ (vi). It covers a lot of very familiar ground. In tone and coverage it resembles Fromkin and Rodman’s best seller An introduction to language (1974; now in its eighth edition, Fromkin et al. 2006). It is obviously aimed at being adopted as a textbook, as can be seen from the systematic coverage of the traditional introductory linguistics curriculum—form classes, morphology, lexical change, lexical semantics, syntax, discourse, phonetics, phonology, writing systems, language variation, historical linguistics, language acquisition, language processing, and language origins. Each of these topics gets a chapter of about twenty-five pages. The written style is lightly academic, not too heavy, but not the popularizing style of Gary Marcus or Steven Pinker. Chapters end with suggestions for further reading and with sets of problem exercises to stimulate active thought. There is a very thorough (thirty-four-page) glossary of terms at the end of the book. The publishers have invested more money than usual in presentation. There are many useful diagrams and illustrations in almost all chapters. The font color switches to green for headings and most examples. Like Fromkin & Rodman, B’s book also tries to lighten up the text’s mood with cute cartoon drawings, but these are poorly drawn and unfunny. In the publicity blurb on the back, Fritz Newmeyer is quoted as saying he would adopt B’s book as an introductory text in linguistics. I think I would give it a try, too.

The title All about language cleverly hides the writer’s dilemma. Certainly the entire book is about language, but it is not about all of language—how could it be? Everything in this book, apart from minor factual details, will be familiar to any academic linguist who has been in the business for a decade or more. It thus presents a very standard view of what the core and scope of the subject are, on the whole a very similar overall view to Fromkin and Rodman’s, but with some more up-to-date facts included. To me, this shows how little the enduring core of basic knowledge about language has changed in the last fifty years. Much of the same ground was covered in Hockett’s Course in modern linguistics (1958). The chapter on ‘Meaning of words’ rehearses the same distinctions as Lyons’s Semantics (1977). As expected, Grice’s maxims get three pages, and speech acts another page, and so on, across the whole broad spectrum of linguistics as we have come to know it. B’s book belongs in a fine pedagogical tradition in linguistics, and in terms of his command of the field, is a worthy addition to it.

As a twenty-year-old, reading such introductory texts opened up a whole new world of interest to me. That was over forty years ago. I would guess (and certainly hope) that by now, more scientific knowledge about language has filtered down into high school education, so that a book such as B’s would not be such an eye-opener to the current generation of twenty-year-olds. [End Page 912] Interested students will have read Pinker 1994 and other popular books, and browsed Crystal’s Encyclopedia of language (1987), not to mention using the amazing resources of the internet.

The book steers clear of controversy, which is in some sense a pity. We don’t want to kill students’ interest with pessimistic accounts of apparently irreconcilable differences between theorists. One solution, which B generally adopts, is pas devant les enfants. For example, there is a standard account of ‘The phoneme’ covered in ten pages. No one would guess by reading this that Chomsky and Halle (1968) had dismissed the classical phonemic level as not being a significant level of linguistic structure. Think what you like about the phoneme, but there is an issue here, and B’s book does not open it up. In the section on phonetics...


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