The continued rate of publication of interesting, original and highly usable books on linguistics goes some way to dispel fears about the future of languages in this country. Although the books reviewed have the same title, they are very different in intention. Christopher Hall uses the subtitle "Breaking the Language Spell" to give a narrative thread that runs through the book, while a glance at the contents page of Ralph Fasold and Jeffrey Connor-Linton shows that this comprises a carefully selected range of chapters by a whole host of first-class writers.
The edited collection is designed to introduce students not only to the standard components of a linguistics course such as phonetics and semantics but also to the increasingly diverse range of subjects that now come under the broad heading of linguistics, ranging from hieroglyphs to machine translation to diglossia, ebonics and language rights in the US.
The only thing that seems to be missing is forensic linguistics and the increasing importance of languages in the international fight against crime and terror.
Hall's book uses an informal readable style, almost chatty in places, with references to his Geordie grandmother and changes in his own patterns of speech over the years. But it hides some serious points about the significance of language and the way it is used, not to mention the fact that few people seem to be aware of the full power of both the spoken and the written word.
He draws on a wide variety of sources, including Umberto Eco, King Alfred the Great and Geoffrey Chaucer. (There is a small misprint in the Chaucer quote, but no matter.) Languages and dialects as social objects mingle with detailed chapters on morphology and syntax, as well as language biology and evolution, plus topics such as linguistic diversity, education and power.
The key idea is the Fundamental Paradox, that language exists in the human mind (there is a lengthy section on Noam Chomsky) but appears only as a result of interaction between people. The principal role of language, however, is somewhat oversimplified, as it can be used to obscure or even reverse meaning as well as to establish or enhance communication, and more could have been said about spin.
Fasold and Connor-Linton have created a very solid textbook by drawing on acknowledged experts in their own particular fields, a wise precaution perhaps when offering an approach to an entire subject and all the variety and contrasts that this now entails.
The book could quite easily be used as a standard course text, although the more daunting material is cunningly hidden in a second, more analytical, list of chapter headings. So the first list tends to use titles that are self-explanatory ("the structure of sentences", "language and the brain"), while the more detailed list lurks a page or two later ("ablaut and suppletion", "magnetoencephalography").
But all the chapters have been written with a view to being accessible. In places, in fact, they veer towards falling into the trap of anecdote, although it is encouraging to see the difficulties that New Yorkers may have, not when speaking to Californians but in understanding what they actually mean.
Topics involving language are very up to date and will attract the interest of newcomers to linguistics by showing them the sheer diversity of the subject and the way in which language impinges on every aspect of public life. Examples are diverse and draw on countries such as Singapore and China and present some fascinating case studies, such as the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language, which was created by deaf children who had been left virtually to fend for themselves at around the time of the Nicaraguan Revolution, and who created their own form of signing among themselves.
Both books have been scrupulously edited and are presented with some consideration for the end user. Key terms are highlighted in the text and listed in the glossary at the back, something that is built on by Fasold and Connor-Linton, who also provide key terms in a vocabulary list at the beginning of each chapter. These are then highlighted in the text and given an extensive explanation in the glossary. Each chapter also has information boxes with a preview and goals laid out as bullet points, which will be handy for reading ahead and later revision. There are also exercises that are original and look quite challenging too (like the ones that draw on hypothetical languages such as Thailish, Enghili and Hindlish, to illustrate sentence structure).
Hall has a handy list of books and websites, with notes about their contents, as well as a more formal academic bibliography. Fasold and Connor-Linton go one step further with a dedicated website that includes extra reading material, some more exercises and extra websites. (The page with the solutions to the exercises comes with controlled access for the tutor.) Ironically perhaps, Hall does not go far with subjects such as artificial intelligence, and while Fasold and Connor-Linton provide a very useful section on computational linguistics they are rather limited on machine translation and the rather more widespread practice nowadays of computer-assisted translation.
Overall, both books are a useful addition to a growing range of publications, reflecting the sheer diversity of linguistics as a subject.
It is to be hoped that they will have a positive effect on students. They will certainly go a long way in persuading them that this is a fascinating subject with boundless possibilities.
Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions, City University London.
An Introduction to Language and Linguistics: Breaking the Language Spell. First edition
Author - Christopher J. Hall
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 360
Price - £60.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 8264 8733 5 and 8734 3