A bag of allsorts for all sorts

English Words
March 15, 1996

Francis Katamba - or perhaps his publisher - has had a very good idea. The average student-in-the-street cannot be relied on to be as interested in the more theoretical aspects of linguistic science as the professional academic linguist would like. Very many nonlinguists are, however, fascinated by words. The idea is to write a book called English Words and use the more accessible subject of words as a hook to hang different aspects of linguistic theory on. The question is whether it has worked out well in practice.

The different aspects of linguistics that Katamba has hung on this hook include, first, basic theoretical morphology, the study of the grammatical structure of words. It is helpful to point out to students, as Katamba has done, that the word is a difficult concept, and that there are a number of problems - many of which linguists have long since stopped worrying about - associated with the analysis of languages like English, where it is clear that walked consists of two parts, walk and -ed, but not at all clear what the morphological composition of comparable forms such as sang is. Katamba's discussion of these issues is, however, less than thrilling, and it is not certain that the average beginning student reading this book is going to be captivated by these issues. (We have to assume that the book is intended for the beginning student because of Katamba's often heavy-handed attempts to be entertaining in his selection of section headings. "Words are like liquorice allsorts" and "Get the glue" are hardly the hallmarks of a natural populariser.) The book also deals with spelling and aspects of historical linguistics, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics. The spelling chapter points out that English orthography has many more regularities than it is given credit for, and discusses the fascinating topic of English spelling reform. Sociolinguistic topics get some coverage in an enlightening discussion of slang and jargon. And psycholinguistics is the subject of a chapter entitled "The mental lexicon" which deals with lexical retrieval as well as with language pathology issues such as Wernicke's aphasia and Broca's aphasia.

The problem with this approach is that the book is inevitably something of a rag-bag. People teaching courses in any of these individual linguistic sub-areas will not find the coverage anything like sufficient. Neither will the book do as a general introduction to linguistics since, by definition, major areas, notably syntax, are excluded. The only teachers who will find it useful are those who, like Katamba, teach courses called "English words". Such courses may serve the useful purpose of whetting students' appetites for further study in linguistics. The danger is that students will instead be dismayed by the detailed and pedestrian coverage of morphology and/or disappointed by the somewhat superficial coverage of a rather disparate collection of other aspects of linguistics.

Peter Trudgill is professor of English language and linguistics, University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

English Words

Author - Francis Katamba
ISBN - 0415 10467 X and 10468 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 282

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