Word of Mouth: A New Introduction to Language and Communication. Geoffrey Finch. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, 228 pp. ISBN: 0-333-91454-6.
This book is not a general introduction to linguistics, but instead is a survey of the development of human language and the various ways it is used in society. The book starts with an overview of the evolutionary origins of language and then considers how words are used in communication, how different styles are employed in the media, how language is represented in the mind, and how infants acquire language. It is intended for non-specialist readers, so the text is always kept non-technical, but at the same time it goes into some detail over many topics, such as Saussure's ideas of signification and reference and Grice's maxims of cooperation.
Considerable effort has been devoted to ensuring the coverage is both straightforward and lively, and many readers will appreciate the regular use of cartoons that illustrate various issues and the boxed-off sections which serve to highlight key points and also enclose apt quotes from well-known writers. It is noted (p.74) that nowadays one pervasive influence of the electronic media such as television is "to make all language look and sound colloquial", and it is ironic that this book itself is clear evidence of this trend, with its regular short sentences and liberal use of abbreviations. For example, just three lines earlier, in discussing the emergence of a virtual community, we are told (p.74): "It's another illusion of course. But we know that too." For many readers, this use of short, sharp sentences and the avoidance of the stuffy language that characterises so much of the literature in linguistics will be welcomed. I guess.
One notable absence from the topics that are covered in any detail is phonetics, and so the title is a little misleading, as one thing that is never discussed is the way that sounds are articulated in the mouth. In fact, in the effort to avoid technical usage that might put off some readers, phonetic symbols are almost entirely absent, to the extent that the pronunciation of butter with a glottal stop in place of the medial /t/ is shown as b 'uh' er (p.124) and the American pronunciation of half and top is given as haff and tarp respectively (p.128). While this attempt to ensure the text is accessible to non-specialists will certainly be appreciated by many, one suspects that anyone with a basis in linguistics will find the use of pseudo-orthography somewhat irritating.
Of course, any book that discusses language variation in society cannot avoid pronunciation issues entirely, but unfortunately there are a few problems here, not just with the avoidance of phonetic symbols. Firstly, one wonders how many would agree that intonation is "paralinguistic" and a "non-verbal means of communication" (p.56). Secondly, many would question whether, in Estuary English, there is ever a glottal stop in the middle of butter (p.125), as, according to Rosewarne (1996), this is a feature of Cockney pronunciation rather than Estuary. Finally, when the concept of covert prestige is introduced (p.123) with the example from Trudgill (1983) of a non-standard linguistic feature such as yod dropping (the omission of /j/ in words such as tune and beauty), it is claimed that men in Norfolk tend to under-report the frequency of this phenomenon, which supposedly confirms that it is regarded as a desirable trait by these speakers. This makes no sense at all: if men in Norfolk exhibit covert prestige and yod dropping is non-standard, one would expect them to over-report this feature, not under-report it. In fact, Trudgill (1983:175) reports a pattern of under-reporting for yod usage, not for yod dropping, and yod usage is of course the exact opposite of yod dropping.
While this book has an interesting and well-presented coverage of a range of different issues, such as the way that language defines us as humans by enabling us to organise and develop our thoughts, and the knowledge we can gain from stroke victims about the organisation of language in the brain, it is rather weaker when it deals with more technical aspects. And this extends beyond phonetics, as the coverage of grammar is also somewhat cursory and occasionally flawed. For example, we are told (p.135) that English lacks "a generic pronoun in the third person singular present tense", and it is rather unusual to say the least to claim that pronouns have tense! Furthermore, the brief introduction to the phrase structure of sentences leaves some rather obvious flaws in the analysis. We are shown a tree diagram with the head cat at the end of the phrase the large Siamese cat (p.158), but then just a few pages later (p.165) we are told that English is a head-first language, which would suggest that the head should always come at the start of a phrase. However, it must be admitted that resolution of this issue is not straightforward, for even if one assumes that the large Siamese cat is in fact a DP, headed by the Determiner the (Radford, 1997), it is not so easy to explain why adjectives such as large and Siamese also precede the noun (Deterding & Poedjosoedarmo, 2001:183).
In reality, most readers, not being afflicted with the reviewer's pedantic obsession with detail, will not notice such minor contradictions or care about them too much even if they are aware of them. And maybe this book has it about right in providing a brief (if slightly flawed) overview of syntax, for the focus of the book is on how language has evolved and continues to develop into such an effective tool of communication, and it does not pretend to be a full introduction to linguistics.
While the lively, non-technical approach is maintained throughout, quite a few of the statements are somewhat controversial. For example, it is stated (p.144) that children are unable to produce some sounds because their speech organs are insufficiently developed, while adults are able to reproduce an accent if they have sufficient exposure to it. Both these claims might be questioned, as it is often believed that, even when babbling, infants produce a wide range of sounds many of which they are no longer able to produce when their speech becomes fully developed, and it is well known that most adults are never able to reproduce an alien accent accurately, however much exposure they have to it. Finally, the concluding chapter introduces the theory of memetics, which suggests that language takes on a life of its own and develops its own directions, almost impervious to the will of humans, so that "rather than us using language, language uses us" (p.211) and "ideas and beliefs are caught not taught", spreading from one person to another contagiously (p.212). While this seems to belong more to the realm of science fiction than a serious consideration of linguistics, it certainly contributes to the lively, provocative tone of the book.
Deterding, David & Poedjosoedarmo, Gloria (2001). The Grammar of English: Morphology and Syntax for English Teachers in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Prentice Hall.
Radford, Andrew (1997). Syntactic Theory and the Structure of English: A Minimalist Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rosewarne, David (1996). 'Changes in English pronunciation and some implications for teachers and non-native learners', Speak Out! 16, 15-21.
Trudgill, Peter (1983). On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives. Oxford: Blackwell.