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Review of  English Words

Reviewer: Marion Schöner
Book Title: English Words
Book Author: Heidi Harley
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 18.798

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AUTHOR(S): Harley, Heidi
TITLE: English Words
SUBTITLE: A Linguistic Introduction
SERIES: The Language Library
YEAR: 2006
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing

Marion Schoner, Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, Germany

_English Words_ is meant to be used by students with a general interest in
words (Harley, citing Richard Lederer, calls them ''verbivores''). It should
provide them not only with a command of the basic methods and tools in
phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, language acquisition and
historical linguistics, but also give them skills in analyzing and
understanding the English lexicon and the basis needed for more advanced
studies in English linguistics or lexicology. It focuses on American
English, but several British English transcriptions are provided as well
(xiv- xvii).


The book is divided into nine chapters, a glossary of important terms, a
short bibliography and a detailed index. Each chapter is preceded by an
International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) transcription of the headline as well
as a short introduction of the chapter's content; it concludes with several
study problems the reader is encouraged to work on and suggestions for
further reading. Moreover, many exercises are inserted throughout each chapter.

Chapter 1, ''What Is a Word?'' presents an overview of how the question of
wordhood can be answered, especially by a layperson. Harley more or less
differentiates between a phonological word and a ''minimal meaningful unit'',
a so-called ''listeme'', which encodes an arbitrary sound-meaning combination
that has to be listed in the speaker's head. Moreover, this first chapter
also introduces basic grammatical terms in a short appendix.

After pointing out that spelling is far from being a faithful
representation of pronunciation, Chapter 2, entitled ''Sound and Fury:
English Phonology'', covers both the physiology of speech production and the
representation of speech sounds. Manner and place of articulation and
voicing are important for the distinction of consonants, tongue position,
lip rounding, muscular tension and duration are relevant for vowels.
Diphthongs and reduced vowels are highlighted as well and the International
Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is introduced as a precise system for representing
actual pronunciation. The categorization into ''families of sounds'' helps to
explain sound changes such as Grimm's Law (or the first Germanic consonant
shift), the important sound change that started off the separation of the
Germanic languages from Latin and other Indo-European languages.

Chapter 3, ''Phonological Words: Calling All Scrabble Players!'' investigates
the phonotactic restrictions on English syllables and gives a set of rules
that restrict the possible syllable inventory of English. Babies,
especially, make innate use of these restrictions in speech perception.
Additionally, syllables, rhythm, stress and allophones are useful when
parsing the speech stream into discrete phonological words and for avoiding
mondegreens, i.e. misheard song lyrics.

In the next chapter, ''Where Do Words Come From?'' Harley covers the three
main processes for finding a name for a concept (i.e. word-formation,
semantic change and borrowing). She illustrates many examples of
back-formation and folk etymology, clipping, acronyms and abbreviations,
affixation and compounding, blends as well as widening and narrowing of
meaning, amelioration and pejoration, and conversion. The question of why
some terms are retained while others fade into obsolescence is discussed
using the example of slang terminology.

Chapter 5, ''Pre- and Suf-fix-es: Engl-ish Morph-o-log-y'', uses morphology
to analyze several neologisms uttered by George W. Bush. It thus explains
the differences between function and content listemes (i.e. organizational
and structuring units in contrast to meaning-carrying units), free and
bound morphemes, roots and stems, and inflection and derivation. Harley
makes clear that affixes have to be compatible with the syntactic and
phonological requirements of their stems, and points out that derivational
affixes such as -nik, -gate, -(a)holic, -licious, -(a)rama, -meister,
-erific, -tacular seem more like open-class than closed-class morphemes.

Chapter 6, ''Morphological Idiosyncrasies'', investigates stem-conditioned
requirements on affixation. Plural formations such as the learned Greek or
Latin forms (e.g. 'analyses', 'alumni'), the zero-plural (e.g. 'sheep') or
the –en plural (e.g. 'oxen') are inflectional alternations of the regular
forms, but all of them are ''homosemes'', i.e. listemes with different
pronunciations but with the same meaning. This technical term is said to be
more precise than, and thus preferable to, ''synonyms'', as the latter are
not completely interchangeable most of the time. Many of these irregular
examples, which are rather unpredictable forms from a Modern English point
of view, can be explained historically and provide information about mental
processes involved in the organization and production of words.

Alongside phonological and syntactic restrictions, lexical restrictions are
imposed on morphemes as well, a phenomenon which is dealt with in Chapter
7, ''Lexical Semantics: The Structure of Meaning, the Meaning of Structure''.
The meaning of function words (e.g. conjunctions, determiners, pronouns,
complementizers, i.e. words that introduce a whole complement clause) is
relatively formal and inflexible, whereas the meaning of content words or
roots (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives) is more likely to flow and change
with time. The latter is often explained in terms of entailment
relationships with other content words (e.g. in a semantic web or
taxonomy). The meaning of such relational concepts is fundamentally
characterized by argument structure (e.g. of a verb), whereas the meaning
of independent concepts is characterized by substance vs. shape-naming
properties (e.g. mass vs. count nouns).

Chapter 8, ''Children Learning Words'', deals with the process of how
children learn to associate concepts with a new string of sounds. As far as
observable things are concerned, assumptions that words refer to entire
objects and different referents, but can be related in taxonomic ways help
babies to guess, as do morphological and syntactic clues. In order to learn
words for non-present entities and abstract concepts, syntactic frames,
semantic roles and event structure are important. Furthermore, some of the
most valuable clues about content words' meaning come from the function
words they combine with.

Finally, Chapter 9, ''Accidents of History: English in Flux'', gives an
overview of English language history, which can be divided into 4 stages
(Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English and Modern English). The
change from a truly Germanic language to what is termed a ''mixed language''
is largely a result of lexical enrichment and borrowing from other
languages, starting with Latin influence (already on the continent, when
Roman traders were in contact with the Angles, Saxons and Jutes before they
migrated to Britain), then Scandinavian influence during the time of the
Viking invasions, French loans during the Norman rule (first Northern
French borrowings, afterwards Parisian French loans), neo-classical loans
during the Renaissance, and loans from all over the world during the time
of the expansion of the British Empire. Extra-linguistic changes as well
(such as the invention of the printing press) help explain the great gap
between modern English pronunciation and spelling.


Even though there are plenty of available introductory textbooks on English
linguistics, the book under review has a few characteristics that stand
out, and deserve to be highlighted. It is written in an engaging, relaxed
style that is refreshing and appropriate to the book's purpose of looking
at the field of linguistics through the window of English words. It is also
very appealing visually, employing boxes or bold print letter to accentuate
important terms, which makes the text inviting and exciting for students.
Harley also uses up-to-date or 'youth' vocabulary, poems, tongue twisters,
cartoons, and children's playing games that students are likely to be
familiar with and explains linguistic phenomena by referring to real-world
situations or experiences relevant to students, making it much more likely
that the readers really see and feel that linguistics can truly be exciting
and useful. Linguistic terminology and concepts are always introduced,
defined, and explained with examples.

The fact that problem sets are placed within the body of the text, to be
done as those concepts are discussed so that the student more clearly
understands early principles before going on to more complex ones, is very
promising. However, since not all problem sets or study questions found at
the end of each chapter are answered, it might sometimes not be clear to
beginners of linguistics which answer will be the correct one or what
exactly is expected from them. If no solution pages are to be given in the
book itself, this problem could perhaps be solved with an internet venue or
web site where students and interested readers could look up some of the
answers or clues (e.g. as Dirven/Verspoor (2004) do with their book
_Cognitive Exploration of Language and Linguistics_).

I also liked the fact that students are encouraged to work with _OED
online_ (cf. chapter 4). This very important dictionary can help students
learn a great deal about the English language and its history. Furthermore,
the history chart given on pages 264 and 265 not only gives important
historical dates and processes but also combines them with their effects on
language and spelling (here, one could make the criticism that Grimm's Law
is not explained in this chapter on historical linguistics, but in an
earlier chapter when talking about phonology).

The chapter on phonotactics seems a bit hard for beginners and in the
section on lexical semantics, I missed some of the more prototypical
relationship terms such as antonym, hypernym, (co)hyponym etc. For
interested readers, the further sources section could also be enlarged a bit.

Despite the points just raised _English Words_ is a readable and essential
introduction into the world of the English lexicon and the study of
linguistics. It therefore is highly recommendable to all students of
language, no matter whether they are ''verbivores'' or not.


Dirven, René & Marjolijn Verspoor, eds. (2004) Cognitive Exploration of
Language and Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Marion Schoener, M.A., is assistant professor for English and Comparative
Linguistics at the University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, Germany. Her
research interests are historical linguistics, variational linguistics,
Basic Global English, and especially how linguistics can serve society in a
better way. She is currently working on her dissertation on historical

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