Yule, George, 1996:

The Study of Language (2nd edition)

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp xii + ix. + 285
Paperback: ISBN 0 521 56851 X, 12.95 (US$17.95)
Hardback: ISBN 0 521 56053 5, 35.00 (US$49.95)

reviewed by

Alan Smith

Department of French Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU
E-mail: Alan.Smith@ncl.ac.uk
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Copyright Notice:

First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1996 Alan Smith.

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Yule's introduction to linguistics is certainly ambitious: no less than 21 sub-disciplines are presented in the space of 250 pages. Not only the "staples" of linguistics are covered, such as phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics, but also less well-known subjects such as sign language, and speech recognition systems. The breadth of coverage of Fromkin and Rodman's An Introduction to Language is also impressive, but that is almost twice the length of Yule's book. I am not aware of any introductory work of a comparable size to Yule's with a similar scope.

This new edition claims that it "incorporates many changes that reflect developments in language study over the past decade." One of these developments has come in the field of animal language. The discovery that chimpanzees are capable of learning a symbolic language system purely by observing it in use, without explicitly being taught by humans, provides further evidence that some animals are indeed capable of learning "the barest rudiments of language", in opposition to Chomsky's belief. In the chapter on animal language, Yule pointedly takes certain scientists to task for their anthropocentrism, which one suspects has informed much discussion on this subject.

Not surprisingly, work on speech recognition systems has advanced since the publication of the first edition in 1985, and this is reflected in the updated edition in the description of the "Pragma" program, which is apparently able to infer the reasons why a person asks certain questions and modify its answers accordingly, unlike earlier systems. Also included is a slightly expanded section on language and gender, which comprises a brief description of sex differentiation in conversation structure. The increased interest in applied linguistics research in recent years is reflected by the additional space allocated to problems faced by second language learners.

There is a new chapter on pragmatics and an enlarged chapter on semantics, whereas in the first edition the two subjects were merged into one chapter. There are several additional terms explained, such as metonymy and collocation in semantics, and reference, anaphora and politeness in pragmatics.

Also at the end of each chapter is a series of simple study questions, designed to aid assimilation of ideas and terminology, and suggested topics for discussion or project work. These are virtually the same as in the first edition, with the exception of an additional discussion/project topic in each chapter.

Overall, however, the revisions to the first edition are minor ones, sometimes limited to a re-arrangement of the paragraphing to aid clarity. But given the quality of the first edition there probably wasn't much scope for improvement, taking into consideration the space constraints: the new edition is only slightly longer than the first one.

Writers of popular introductions to linguistics are invariably faced with the problem of how to reconcile the need for adequate coverage of basic linguistic theory with the requirement for the text to be comprehensible to readers with no previous knowledge of the subject. I am sure that we are all familiar with works that are irritating either because they are weighed down with densely-written text, in which important information is difficult to find, or because they adopt a condescending tone towards the reader.

It is therefore refreshing to come across a book that takes the reader's intelligence for granted while not skimping on academic rigour. Apart from the impressive breadth of coverage, the strengths of Yule's book are its clear presentation, lucid style and accessibility. All technical terms are shown in bold type, both in the text and in the index, so it is easy to retrieve the meaning of any item that has temporarily been forgotten.

But it is the quality of Yule's explanations that are so impressive. Even when writing on a subject that is prone to misunderstanding such as generative grammar, Yule is typically concise and unambiguous; he wisely avoids exposing the ideas of competing schools of thought in the field, which would only serve to cloud the understanding of those unfamiliar with the more contentious issues in linguistics. Another good example of Yule's clarity is the section on politeness theory. An outstanding feature of the book is the care taken by Yule to exemplify any difficult areas, and to provide charts and diagrams where necessary. Moreover, Yule stands or falls by his own interpretations and does not attempt to gave them bogus support by "name-dropping": the book remains mercifully uncluttered with citations and references.

I was only able to detect one slight inaccuracy: on the subject of William Labov's famous study of the speech of personnel in three New York department stores, Yule implies that the socio-economic status of the staff determined whether they pronounced post-vocalic [r] or not (p.241); in fact, it was the socio-economic status of the customers that Labov regarded as the main factor influencing the pronunciation of [r]. I also find that he dismisses Chomsky's innateness theory in a rather summary fashion, a theory to which he only devotes a single sentence (p.177), without suggesting alternative explanations for apparently universal features of language such as its structure-dependency and the head parameter. In addition, I think the text would have benefited from more examples from languages other than English, although, to be fair, the exercises make up for this lack since many of them are based on "exotic" tongues.

It would be easy to quibble about the lack of coverage given to certain topics. For example, there is no account of the importance of prescriptive attitudes in the development of standard languages and there is no discussion of the question of causation in linguistic change. Furthermore, the chapter on phonology does not discuss the important function of intonation in language. Each subject is necessarily stripped to the bare essentials. However, there is an extensive reading list (updated since the first edition) at the end of each chapter for those wishing to deepen their knowledge of any particular subject.

That said, The Study of Language is proof that there is absolutely no excuse for muddiness at the elementary level of linguistics (or indeed at any level); it is authoritative, good-humoured and written with an ever-present concern with objectivity and fairness. The work provides a solid foundation for further study in linguistics as well as being a pleasure to read in its own right.

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