First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics. © 2000 Helen Wright.
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This is a comprehensive and surprisingly compact book for the knowledge that it contains. The authors all teach at the Department of Language and Linguistics at the University of Essex, and this combined work reflects their areas of expertise, approaching linguistics from a beginning undergraduate perspective, but with success in avoiding the isolation or simplification of the subject that can occur in first year linguistics courses. The perspective taken throughout this book is unashamedly Chomskyan, and it is clear that a decision has been taken at some point in the editorial process not to confuse the reader with an array of alternatives to language acquisition and usage, but the lack of polemic, and the fact that the authors draw on a variety of linguistic expertise that allows for the as-yet-unknown, will make it a perfectly acceptable textbook. Above all, it seeks to show that there is meat on the bare bones of the subject, and draws the reader into the realms of developmental linguistics, psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics, in response to the latter three of the four questions that the authors set themselves to guide them throughout the book:
Sociolinguistics too has its place in this Introduction, integrated into each of the main sections of the book as a means of placing language in its social context, and although there is an inevitable limit to the scope of the work, the exploration of these realms makes it an unusually full and attractive new introduction to the subject of linguistics, with potential as a coursebook and certainly worth contemplating for university courses.
While the book is divided into three parts - Sounds, Words and Sentences - this simplistic overview does not adequately reflect the range of areas tackled by the authors. A twenty-four page introduction explores the more global themes that will recur in each part, situating them in context of relevant research and developing them in their own right before they are applied to the segments of language discussed in the main body of the book. Part 1 - Sounds - looks, for example, at linguistic and sociological sound variables, stylistic variation, child phonology and speech perception as well as the basics of phonemes, phonological processes and sound change. A similar broad sweep of the field is to be found in Part 2 - Words - which looks at morphology across languages, children and words, the mental lexicon and lexical disorders in addition to word classes, morphology and semantics. Part 3 - Sentences - again explores the developmental and social nature of the topic together with syntactic disorders alongside sentence structure, variation and processing.
All the sections in the book are clearly referenced to examples, with further reading suggested and an extremely good selection of exercises - course tutors might consider looking at this book for the exercises alone, as they are to be recommended for the range of academic skills they will encourage students to develop, from comprehension to analysis and from conceptualisation to research. A brief discussion of the field of alternative interpretations of second language acquisition would have a added a further welcome dimension, particularly in the sections that look at errors, but then, too much can make a book unmanageable, and this work is certainly not that. It is, rather, impressive in how much it conveys in clear language designed to interest and motivate understanding and further study of the subject.