Scripts for stage, net and airwaves

The Language of Conversation - The Language of Drama - The Language of Speech and Writing - The Language of ICT
August 23, 2002

These books are all part of the Routledge Intertext series, which has a core textbook Working with Texts and a large set of more specialised satellite textbooks. They are different from traditional linguistics textbooks in three important ways.

First, they concentrate on "how texts work" as the series statement puts it, whereas linguistics has usually started from the question of "how language is structured". This may sound like a minor difference of emphasis, but in fact it is fundamental. Texts are produced by real people and contain mistakes and personal quirks; they are also constrained by culture, power and ideology.

Mainstream linguistics has mostly tried to filter out these factors because they are complex and controversial and because of a belief that the essential nature of a language emerges only when textual practices are ignored. Noam Chomsky has been criticised for saying that linguistics is concerned with "an ideal speaker-listener", but he was describing only what most linguists do. Grammar researchers and language teachers rightly ignore the fact that speakers vary in how they pronounce sounds, use words in idiosyncratic ways and speak in incomplete sentences that do not always conform to grammar rules.

The Intertext books, however, focus precisely on the things that linguists leave out. Tim Shortis asks what is special about the language of computing. Keith Sanger shows how the words used to describe a stage set are very different from the language of soliloquies. The issues of how language and culture influence each other, how text and graphics interact on a computer screen, and the metaphors we use to talk about the "web" are among the concerns of these books. They tend to be issues that already engage students, rather than questions that academic linguists investigate.

Of course, some traditional questions arise too. Starting with the language of drama, Sanger looks at the use of standard and non-standard English on the stage. This immediately raises sociolinguistic questions about language variation, and also brings in the conceptual tools to talk about sounds, meanings and grammar, because you cannot discuss non-standard English without them. Shortis looks at how new words are created in response to new technology, and this quickly leads into demanding areas of morphology (word structure) and semantics. You can approach language structure by starting from texts: the point is that linguistics normally does not, so traditionalists who want to use these textbooks will have to do some serious rethinking.

The second difference is related to the first. Linguistics courses tend to divide language up into phonology, syntax, and semantics. That is how the Quality Assurance Agency benchmark statement expects the subject to be organised, and it makes perfect sense if you start from language rather than from texts. The Intertext books jump around, comparing a radio talk with a written article on the same topic. Sandra Cornbleet and Ronald Carter deal with intonation and other properties of sounds next to the syntax of passive constructions, while tag questions (grammar) come close to conversational implicature (semantics and pragmatics) in Francesca Pridham's analysis of how dialogues are constructed. Maybe this is messy, and students should do syntax and phonology "properly" - that is, separately. I am not sure: perhaps most students only end up with a fragmented picture of language, whatever we do.

What is certain is that these books make the textual approach attractive, challenging and lively. This is one reason for the third difference, which is that they are usable by teachers of English to speakers of other languages as well as in linguistics classrooms. My colleagues who teach English have found these books excellent - whereas traditional linguistics textbooks would not suit them at all. It is the focus on real texts that gives the books their dual purpose. Some linguists will find this threatening, because they want to draw a sharp line between learning English and learning linguistics, the latter supposedly being a more serious academic pursuit. I disagree, because teaching linguistics can often work extremely well if it is linked explicitly with advanced language learning. These books are excellent resources for anyone who wants to teach in this way.

In short, these are innovative books that cross established boundaries. They are full of exercises and activities and they raise a variety of interesting questions. Thoughtful teachers and students will welcome them whole-heartedly.

Raphael Salkie is professor of language studies, University of Brighton.

The Language of Conversation

Author - Francesca Pridham
ISBN - 0 415 22964 2
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £9.99
Pages - 96

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