Languages of the World: An Introduction

November 8, 2012

Author: Asya Pereltsvaig

Edition: First

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Pages: 296

Price: £55.00 and £19.99

ISBN: 97811070084 and 9780521175777

What connection is there between salami and halogens? The answer only indirectly concerns food additives: the words salami and halogen both ultimately derive from the Indo-European word for salt, which not only yielded the Latin sal - the ancestor of salt-cured salami - but also the Greek hals, from which the 19th-century scientist Johann Schweigger coined the word for an element that produces a salt.

The etymology of words is a subject with broad popular appeal and often supplies students with their first point of contact with the field of linguistics. Asya Pereltsvaig's Languages of the World responds to this interest in etymology and linguistic genealogy, providing a lively and clearly written guide to the major language families. Organised into 12 chapters and dividing the world into "geolinguistic zones" (that is, areas defined by commonalities of language as well as geographical contours), the book takes its reader on a journey from Europe to the Middle East and Central Asia, and from Africa to Austronesia, before reaching the Americas as its final destination. In preparation for the linguistic round-the-world trip, Pereltsvaig includes discussion of the perennial question of what constitutes a language versus a dialect and the principles of comparative reconstruction, as well as linguistic universals. The last two chapters of the book consider issues that have arisen in the investigation of genealogical relatedness between languages, concerning, on the one hand, macro-family proposals and, on the other, language contact and mixed languages.

Languages of the World stands apart from more traditional introductory textbooks of historical linguistics by skilfully interweaving the examination of lexical and grammatical similarity between related languages with the discussion of topics that feature heavily in theoretical linguistics, such as non-configurationality, discontinuous morphology and the representation of tone. Pereltsvaig displays a knack for channelling the reader's linguistic curiosity towards developing an appreciation of linguistic concepts and methods of analysis. Readers who finish the book will have learned not only about linguistic family trees and areal relationships but also a considerable amount about "how language works", and the dimensions along which languages do and can differ from each other.

That said, this text cannot be wholeheartedly recommended to the complete novice. While marketed as a book that assumes "no prior knowledge of linguistics", its explanations of phonetic dimensions and the phoneme are too cursory to be elucidating. Consequently, Languages of the World is most suitable for students already familiar with linguistic fundamentals, or for use alongside a general introductory text. As such, it will undoubtedly and beautifully serve its stated goal of "developing a sense of wonderment at the rich diversity of human languages".

Who is it for? Undergraduates or beginning postgraduates in linguistics who possess (or are simultaneously acquiring) a background knowledge in the core areas of linguistics; it would also make an ideal textbook for a course in linguistic anthropology.

Presentation: Clear and engaging; it is full of interesting information, and the chapter on the Austronesian language family in particular reads like a detective story.

Would you recommend it? Yes. This is an essential text for anyone interested in family relationships between languages, and a good read to boot.

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