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Introducing Linguistics

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Introducing Linguistics comes from the popular Introducing series of almost one hundred bestselling titles. They are famous for their unique use of visual material to present often quite difficult subjects in an understandable way. Cartoon-style graphics combine with charts, photographs, speech bubbles, and chunks of text to introduce the basic ideas in linguistics in a very digestible form.

The author, R. L. Trask, is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex in the UK. He has published many works in linguistics, and is particularly highly regarded in historical linguistics. The book is illustrated by graphic designer Bill Mayblin.

Trask begins with the history of linguistics as a discipline, tracing it from Panini's work on Sanskrit, through Aristotle and the Greco-Latin scholars, and the European approaches of the 14th and 15th centuries, to the modern day subject. Ferdinand de Saussure's hugely influential ideas, which revolutionised linguistics are explained, and we learn how his work emphasised two different approaches: synchronic linguistics (language studied at a particular time) and diachronic linguistics (the development of language over time).

The work of other important figures is covered in roughly chronological order, including that of Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobsen (both of The Prague Circle), Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf Whorf, Leonard Bloomfield, Zellig Harris, and Noam Chomsky.

Trask explains Chomsky's Generative Grammar, a theory that underlies much present-day linguistics. The reader learns, too, about the problems in Transformational Grammar, and how the theory has developed.

There follows a section on what language and communication are, and the comparatively modern discipline of cognitive linguistics is outlined. In light of these discussions, we discover what is special about human language compared to animal communication, and what all human languages are believed to have in common. In addition to speech, the primary means of linguistic communication, writing systems and sign languages are covered too.

In an enlightening section on how the world's languages are related, and how they have developed from so-called proto-languages, we learn about the different language families, such as Indo-European to which English belongs.

From here, Trask moves to sociolinguistics, showing, for example, how men and women use language differently, and how there are many types of variation that exist within one language. A rather short section on meaning (the sub-disciplines of semantics and pragmatics) is squeezed between this and a discussion of where languages come from, where the reader learns about pidgins and creoles.

Returning to Chomsky's ideas, we are introduced to Universal Grammar and the notion of innateness, or linguistic nativism. This is the controversial hypothesis that grammatical rules are there because there are innate in the human mind (i.e. we are born 'knowing' them), and so it is not a matter for linguistics to investigate where they came from.

The remainder of the book addresses several recent developments and fields of study in linguistics: language disorders, aphasia, neurolinguistics, Williams syndrome, neurolinguistics, and psycholinguistics. In the final pages, Trask draws together the various threads introduced throughout the previous sections, including a section on what we know today within the relatively young science of linguistics.

Trask's background in historical linguistics is evident, for there is a strong emphasis on the development of the subject and on diachronic studies throughout.

There is no table of contents, and the book is not divided into chapters, although each page (sometimes more) could be considered a mini section of its own, presenting a new, bite-size idea for the reader to grasp. The book would be best read from start to finish, as the topics are presented in a logical order that builds on material previously explained. There is an index, however, to assist in locating particular subjects.

There is also a short list of suggested further reading where 14 introductory and intermediate linguistic texts are recommended. Introducing Linguistics will be ideal for anyone starting a course in the subject, or considering doing so. With fewer than 180 pages, this book does not take long to read. But its brevity is a virtue, for its accessible, visual style is aimed at readers with little or no knowledge of the subject.

So, if you don't know what linguistics is, want to know how the various fields relate to one another, or would like to find out which sub-discipline interests you most, then this would be a great place to start.

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