Pick up points with Scrabble

English Words
November 24, 2006

Heidi Harley has produced a textbook that is genuinely introductory but at the same time does not shy away from the complexities and technicalities of linguistic analysis. She covers topics including phonology, morphology, semantics and language acquisition, as well as offering a concise history of the English language. She excels at choosing engaging and relevant examples, for instance illustrating the principles of phonotactics with a discussion of techniques used in Scrabble, and introducing morphology by means of a series of "Bushisms".

The focus on words does impose restrictions. There is no discussion of fields of linguistics in which analysis extends over longer stretches of language: of pragmatics, discourse analysis or conversation analysis.

This is, at times, regrettable. For instance, Harley rightly points out that the semantics of logical conjunction can explain why "she studied and she failed" is true only if both conjuncts are true. But such semantics cannot account for the apparent difference in meaning between this and "she failed and she studied". This requires a pragmatic explanation, but Harley does not even hint at this.

The book is aimed primarily at an American market, which unfortunately limits its usefulness as an introduction to phonetics and phonology for British students. All in-text transcriptions are given in American English, and the British reader has to refer back to an initial list of Received Pronunciation versions. Discussion of regional variation is also restricted mainly to American English.

Despite these limitations, English Words fulfils its explicit aims; it would provide a useful basis for general introductory modules in linguistics or in English language. Its style is accessible but not patronising. Each chapter ends with "study problems" and with "further reading" sections that suggest articles and monographs as well as other textbooks. There are also a number of in-text references to relevant websites.

Siobhan Chapman is senior lecturer in English language, Liverpool University.

English Words: A Linguistic Introduction. First Edition

Author - Heidi Harley
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 296
Price - £55.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 631 23031 9 and 23032 7

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