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American Speech 79.1 (2004) 105-109
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Time For A Tune-Up?
Beth G. Leone
For educators of and those interested in the field of linguistics, The English Language: An Owner's Manual is a book worth reading. Thomas and Tchudi mix playful and linguistic descriptions of the English language to ease the fears of those frightened by grammar and remind those that aren't of the joys of the language. As Thomas and Tchudi point out in the preface, although we may drive a car without understanding what's under the hood, "we drive the 'language machine' in ignorance only at our peril" (xi). However, describing the book as "an owner's manual" is not entirely appropriate because it is more than just a nuts and bolts approach to the English language.
Chapter 1 attempts to ease the nervous learner into a study of the language through "The Play of Language" by providing a mix of word games and jokes, along with literary terms, like pun, paradox, concrete poetry, and panagrams. These words, and others like them, are in boldface, and readers can use the glossary to check the definition if needed. Included in the chapter are some definitions, while other meanings are demonstrated through examples. Quotations from L. S. Vygotsky are intermingled with those from Lewis Carroll in a discussion of transactional language. As this chapter on wordplay slips in discussions of constructivism and postmodern views of knowledge and Immanuel Kant's distinction between rhetoric and poetry, the reader realizes that this book is not for light reading as the opening tone may have suggested, but is a broad and carefully organized study of many areas of language and linguistics.
Chapter 2, "The Nature of Language," employs well-designed tables to demonstrate some of the similarities and differences between English and other languages. The chapter divides into subsections of similarities, like "All Languages Have Grammar," "All Languages Are Complex and Successful," "All Languages Change," "All Languages Are Creative," and "All Languages Are Social." Readers are briefly introduced to the study of English as a Second Language and anthropological linguistics. The latter introduction includes an interesting tale of a group of people in the [End Page 105] Philippines who were thought by some to have no contact with the modern world and how anthropological linguists studied their language to debunk the bogus claim.
To explain how linguists describe languages, Thomas and Tchudi provide an effective discussion of the International Phonetic Alphabet, including a vowel chart, a diagram of the mouth and vocal tract with the points of articulation identified, and a consonant chart. The authors state that their coverage is brief and that "the study of phonetics requires far more time than can be covered in this text" (54), but the discussion is informative and easy to understand. While professionals in the field may find the sections on phonetics, phonology, and morphology too simple, others just beginning to study or returning to linguistics will find the condensed descriptions and thoughtful examples to be a good summary and review.
"Language and Society," chapter 3, expands social issues mentioned in the first part of chapter 2 and body language into a thorough discussion of speech situations, including Dell Hymes's (1972) framework of a communicative event, by using examples of communicative situations at a football game. The effects of gender and authority in speech are shown through excerpts from Deborah Tannen's (1990) You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation and Hugh Mehan's (1983) "The Role of Language and the Language of Role in Institutional Decision Making." Following the excerpts is a full discussion of how these examples demonstrate the effects of outside factors on the power of language. The chapter ends with informative summaries of the politics and suppression of language in the specific cases of Canada, Yugoslavia, and the European Union.
Chapter 4, "Extended Language," concerns the mass media and its preservation of language. Thomas and...