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Review of How English works: A linguistic introduction

posted March 5th, 2008

How English works: A linguistic introduction. By Anne Curzan and Michael Adams. New York: Pearson Education, 2006. Pp. 561. ISBN 0321121880. $78.67.

Reviewed by Jill Ward, Northeastern Illinois University

How English works sucks its readers in with questions friendly to both linguists and nonlinguists. ‘Why do some people say aks and not ask?’, ‘Who speaks a dialect?’, and ‘Why is colonel spelled the way it is?’ pepper the front cover with the promise of answers we forgot we wanted. The book is designed for English or education majors taking an introductory linguistics class, and focuses on connecting literature, education, and linguistics with everyday uses of English relevant to students’ lives.

The book consists of fourteen chapters. Chapters begin with vignettes regarding current issues of linguistic interest, such as ‘blogging’ or attitudes toward dialects in America. Following each vignette is background on the chapter topic and subtopics, followed by a chapter summary, suggested reading, and exercises. Sprinkled throughout the chapters are ‘special interest boxes’ prompting questions, thought, or connections regarding the larger topic. While the book’s pages do not feature color, charts, photos, diagrams, and maps all contribute to the visual appeal of this text.

Ch. 1, ‘A language like English’ (1–32), addresses the aspects of human language that make it unique. Ch. 2, ‘Language and authority’ (33–63), implores the reader to consider who is ‘in charge’ of language, questioning the authority of grammar books, dictionaries, contracts, and governments over and with language. Ch. 3, ‘English phonology’ (64–100), looks at sound systems, phonological adjustments by speakers, and language change, with a brief connection to spelling.

Ch. 4, ‘English morphology’ (101–28), examines inflection and derivation, changes in words through affixation, word formation, and slang. Ch. 5, ‘Syntax: The grammar of words’ (129–65), refreshes the student’s memory of parts of speech, introduces the notions of form and function, and helps with oft-confused words. Ch. 6, ‘Syntax: Phrases, clauses, and sentences’ (166–206), considers universal grammar, constituents and hierarchies, phrase structure rules and trees, and transformations.

Ch. 7, ‘Semantics’ (207–41), discusses how words mean, reference, prototype theory, and metaphor. Ch. 8, ‘Spoken discourse’ (242–80), looks at discourse analysis, speech acts, the cooperative principle, Grice’s maxims, and politeness. Ch. 9, ‘Stylistics’ (281–319), introduces systematicity, types of texts, and cohesion. Ch. 10, ‘Language acquisition’ (320–55), addresses universal grammar, first language acquisition, the critical age hypothesis, and aphasia.

Ch. 11, ‘Language variation’ (356–91), examines dialects, the studies of William Labov, and language contact. Ch. 12, ‘American dialects’ (392–432), tackles language politics and language variation. Ch. 13, ‘History of English: Old to Early Modern English’ (435–76), revisits language changes in English. Ch. 14, ‘History of English: Modern and future English’ (477–508), addresses social forces, media, and globalization of English, particularly in regard to World Englishes and English’s use in technology.

Additional features include a dialect map of American English; American English consonant and vowel charts; a brief timeline for the history of the English language; a list of symbols, linguistic conventions, and common abbreviations; a comprehensive index; and an extensive glossary.