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Review of  Understanding Phonology, Second edition

Reviewer: Katalin Balogné Bérces
Book Title: Understanding Phonology, Second edition
Book Author: Carlos Gussenhoven Haike Jacobs
Publisher: Hodder Education
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): Dutch
Book Announcement: 16.2501

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Date: Mon, 29 Aug 2005 12:48:06 +0100 (BST)
From: Katalin Balogné Bérces <>
Subject: Understanding Phonology, 2nd ed.

AUTHORS: Gussenhoven, Carlos; Jacobs, Haike
TITLE: Understanding Phonology
SUBTITLE: Second edition
SERIES: The Understanding Language Series
PUBLISHER: Hodder Arnold
YEAR: 2005

Katalin Balogné Bérces, Department of English Language and Literature,
Pázmány Péter Catholic University (PPKE), Piliscsaba, Hungary

The book reviewed here was published in The Understanding Language Series,
which aims to present the basics of major topics in linguistics to
students with little or no previous knowledge. After introducing the
fundamentals of speech production and the IPA notational system (Chapter
1), the book turns to the discussion of phonological theory. We are
provided with the necessary background gradually, from the unavoidable
morphological and syntactic terminology, through universals and
(parametric) variation (how "phonologies of different languages are
variations on the same theme" -- p.32) (Chapter 2), to phonological
adjustments as seen in the light of loanword adaptation (Chapter 3).
Meanwhile, the basics of Optimality Theory (henceforth OT) are also
introduced. Then, in Chapter 4 the need for the recognition of an
underlying phonological representation is argued for, with allophonic,
phonemic, and stylistic differences clearly distinguished. Other key terms
like neutralization are also explained. Chapter 5 motivates the existence
of distinctive features and presents a slightly modified version of the
SPE set of binary features. The discussion of the transformational rule
format and rule ordering (Chapter 6) is followed by a case study of the
diminutive suffix in Dutch (Chapter 7) and the introduction of Lexical
Phonology (Chapter 8). In the rest of the book, nonlinear solutions are
offered for the representation of tone (Chapter 9), syllable- and skeleton-
based processes (Chapter 10), subsegmental structure (Chapters 11 and 12),
and stress (Chapters 13 and 14). Finally, the hierarchy of prosodic
constituents is described (Chapter 15). Each chapter (except Chapter 1)
contains questions and exercises embedded in the running text, the key to
which is found at the back of the book. The key is followed by a
comprehensive References section, a detailed language index (providing
information on the language family to which each language referred to in
the book belongs, as well as on the geographical area where the language
is spoken), and a subject index.

This second edition is a moderately re-structured version of the first,
with a few of the original sections fused, others split, and a number of
new themes added, among which are opacity (Chapter 6.7), the feature
analysis of affricates (Chapters 5 and 11), and various topics in prosodic
phonology including the Strict Layer Hypothesis (Chapters 15.2-4). Also, a
number of new exercises supplement the old text.

On the whole, the book introduces the basic terminology properly, treats
all the fundamental issues of phonetics and (generative) phonology in
detail, although it is silent about a few topics (e.g., acoustic
phonetics, phonological evolution) which might have received some
attention, but at the same time it elaborates upon others (e.g., loanword
adaptation and prosodic phonology) not usually covered at such length in
coursebooks. Obviously, selecting subjects from a manifold area like
phonology is not easy, and to be able to treat previously neglected issues
one needs to sacrifice some of the canon, and make forced choices as to
the linguistic data analysed (biassed a little bit toward Dutch this
time). As an unfortunate result, the book fails to be fully self-
contained, it is hardly sufficient for the self-study student, and needs
complementing from other sources for a full picture. Nevertheless, the
style is quite successfully kept throughout the whole book to the main
objective outlined at the very beginning, therefore it is quite capable of
informing readers with little or no background in linguistics. It uses
illuminating examples and argumentation, and among the particularly well-
written and comprehensive chapters are the ones on feature geometry
(Chapters 11 and 12) and stress (Chapters 13 and 14). Unlike many other
textbooks, it contains questions and exercises accompanying the topics --
thought-provoking, to-the-point exercises, each of which is supplied with
a key. Another innovation compared to other textbooks lies in the usage of
phonetic symbols: the authors decide to use IPA consistently, being ready
to adapt the non-IPA transcriptions of their sources to the IPA notation
(however, already on p.8 in Chapter 1 they admit that "deviating from IPA
conventions, authors normally use the symbol [a] to represent a central or
central to back open unrounded vowel", and they seem to repeat this
deviation from IPA there and elsewhere, e.g. p.12, p.70). Also, the detail
of the language index described above is worth another mention.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from a few minor defects. Besides the ones
already pointed out, the reader looks in vain for questions or exercises
in Chapter 1 ("The production of speech") -- there are none, because, as
the authors explain, it is "a background introductory chapter". In my
view, since phonetics serves as the very background without which most of
the rest of the book is hard to digest (especially, subsegmental structure
and phonetically motivated processes), it is of utmost significance to
make sure the student has mastered its basics. (In addition, quite sadly,
other branches of phonetics (esp. acoustics) are not even mentioned in the

Chapter 3 ("Making the form fit"), on loanword adaptation, uses the
discussion of adjustment processes to introduce phonological rules and
constraints. Although I find this a particularly enlightening and
revealing way to illustrate phonology at work and pave the way for the
introduction of two levels of representation within one and the same
language, ultimately the text is too theoretical, bringing in terms
like "the Perceptual Level" and "the Operative Level", before even
mentioning more fundamental concepts like phonemes or allophones. It also
discusses the difference between rule-based models and OT's constraint-
based approach, which I judge to be too early, considering the fact that
the detailed explanation of rules and rule ordering is postponed to as
late as Chapter 6. In general, I find the use of OT tableaux at such an
early point to be premature, even before dealing with underlying vs.
surface representations. Perhaps the authors themselves suspect this, too:
in the Epilogue, they make an attempt at justifying their choice "to
deviate from a strict chronological treatment of theories" (p.233), and
they sketch out the main developments in the history of Generative
Phonology -- fitting together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle at the very
end of the book only.

A few minor remarks are in order here. Chapter 10 ("Between the segment
and the syllable") argues for the existence of the skeleton in
phonological representations, and while both the CV-tier and morae are
introduced, the X-tier goes unspoken of. Throughout the book, when giving
data or examples, the spelt forms of words are frequently omitted even for
languages (like Dutch, French, or German) with traditional orthographies,
which is an unusual practice and leaves readers without a good command of
these languages having doubts. Finally, I think the book may be made more
effective in its objectives by adding follow-up questions and/or exercises
at the end of the chapters, and by providing the subject index with page
numbers besides, or instead of, the present edition's section numbers to
facilitate finding definitions and/or first mentions in the text.

On the whole, the book succeeds in serving as another introductory
coursebook in phonology, properly introducing what needs to be introduced,
containing no revolutionary innovations to the genre, causing no real
surprise to the instructor (or the student) using it. Although it is
characterized by a strong theoretical bias towards OT, with even some of
the latest developments (e.g. sympathy theory) briefly sketched out, other
(not outdated) approaches and proposals are also mentioned (e.g., unary
feature models for subsegmental structure in Chapter 5.3, implicit hints
at the Principles and Parameters model of language acquisition in, e.g.,
Chapter 2.6). This book qualifies as a progressive coursebook on
phonological theory as required by the standards of the early 2000s.


Katalin Balogné Bérces took her M.A. in English Language and Literature
from the Faculty of Humanities, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Budapest
in 1998, and started her research as a doctoral student in the English
Linguistics PhD Programme of ELTE in the same year. Her field of research
is the phonology, more specifically the syllable structure, of English.
She completed her PhD dissertation (entitled "Strict CV Phonology and the
English Cross-word Puzzle") in February 2005, and is expecting to defend
it in September 2005. She works as a full-time assistant lecturer in the
Department of English Language and Literature, PPKE, and teaches various
courses on English linguistics, phonology, syntax, and dialectology.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0340807350
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: c.320pp
Prices: U.K. £ 16.99