Review: The ABC's of Languages and Linguistics

The ABC's of Languages and Linguistics
The ABC's of Languages and Linguistics: A Basic Introduction to Language Science
Curtis W. Hayes, Jacob Ornstein, and William W. Gage
National Textbook Company, Lincolnwood, Illinois, 1995

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — March 28, 1998, 4:00pm

There is no shortage of literature in the field of linguistics. Much of what is published is filled with technical jargon, however, and assumes much about the previous knowledge of the reader. The ABC’s of Languages and Linguistics is one work which attempts to provide a straightforward, understandable, and timely introduction to the study of languages. It succeeds on all counts but the third.

The ABC’s of Languages and Linguistics begins with a relaxed introduction to what one might expect to find when studying languages. No knowledge on the part of the reader is assumed, and some assumptions the reader might have had about his/her language or those of others are exposed. Many of these misconceptions seem sometimes a bit obvious, but may be necessary for one unfamiliar with languages other than his/her own, and are therefore probably appropriate.

The first chapter then makes it clear that assumptions about the beauty of a certain language, the difficulty of speaking a certain language, or usability of a language for a particular purpose are usually brought about more from the biases of the speaker of a language than from actual fact. This and in fact all the chapters in the book include a "Question and Activities" section. For leisurely reading, however, these sections can be safely ignored.

The book then presents an overview of how, as best we can tell, languages are related to one another. All the broad language families are presented, along with subgroups and representative languages. From then, the reader is finally introduced to the subject of linguistics as a field of study. The book details several past theories and several new (to this century) theories. These theories are briefly covered, and any feeling of vagueness one gets is not from any complicated presentation that the book makes, but rather from its brevity.

From here, the subject turns to specific studies in linguistics, covering phonology, morphology and syntax, and semantics. Each of these are at first presented simply, but their respective chapters soon turn relatively dry — the leisurely reading found at the first of this book disappears. I would imagine that this is not a fault of the authors, but rather a result of the subject matter. Other works on the subject would undoubtedly be just as complicated or more so.

After discussing these specific areas of linguistics, the "reading for fun" style begins again. The authors discuss other forms of communication besides speech, historical endeavors to create a single language, and a very interesting and important chapter on the implications of language on culture and society. These languages are simple and brief (as this book purposed to be), but nonetheless interesting and informative. The book ends by discussing language acquisition and concepts used in teaching languages.

The ABC’s of Languages and Linguistics was written 1964, and it shows. Although "great effort has been made by [the authors] to incorporate new and significant data into this current book" (p.vii), its latest edition (1995) is obviously not up-to-date. While I am in no position to evaluate its currency in the field of linguistics, other general topics which have changed as much as linguistics (if not more) could easily have been modified and expanded to give this book a fresher feel than the current edition.

One example which dates the book's contents is the statement that we now, "have the electric typewrite, and typewriters that can be linked to mechanical scanners. Although typewriters are efficient for alphabetic systems, with their very small inventory of symbols, they are inefficient to transcribe the complex systems employed in Japan, China, and Korea" (p.116). Such statements completely ignore advances made in the past few decades in computer technology and the Internet’s World-Wide Web, both of which were in full force at the time of the book’s 1995 publication. Similarly, the section on language acquisition completely ignores recent availability of multimedia language works on CD-ROM format. The word, "computer" is found only once or twice in the entire book. For these reasons, one who is not already well versed in linguistics will wonder if the linguistic-related sections are dated as well.

Overall, however, Curtis Hayes, Jacob Ornstein, and William Gage accomplish what they set out to do: give someone unlearned in linguistics a way to start. While one curious about languages certainly should have no lack of relevant materials, their content usually assumes much more knowledge than a beginner has. The ABC’s, in contrast, provides a friendly, comfortable, if somewhat dated starting point.