An American Editor

February 19, 2010

On Books: English Words: History and Structure

As an editor, I always want to better my understand of my native language. Consequently, I am constantly on the lookout for books to add to my reference library or from which I can learn something new about English.

I saw an ad in one of my literary magazines (I think it was the New York Review of Books) for Robert Stockwell and Donka Minkova’s English Words: History and Structure, 2nd edition. I knew it would be expensive when I saw the publisher (Cambridge University Press) and I was not disappointed: it was listed as a textbook, presumably for a college course, which was reflected in the list price of $105.

I’m not averse to spending $100 on a book (one of the best books I ever bought was Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life, a 2-volume biography published by Johns Hopkins University Press listing at $125), but I like to be sure I’m getting value for my money, and so I hesitated. There was nothing in the brief description of the book to indicate why it warranted such a price.

I decided to look for a first edition of the book; I wondered how much could have changed in this subject in the few years between the first and second editions to make a first edition outdated. I found that the first edition was still available. I was unable to discover what had changed to make the second edition a must-have edition and so I bought the first edition of the book, also new and in hardcover, but for $33.75, a significant savings. I am glad I didn’t go for the $105 2nd edition version (a paperback version of the 2nd edition is also available for less than the hardcover’s $105 price, but I prefer to buy hardcover books for my library).

English Words: History and Structure is definitely a course book. It is clearly written for a captive audience. It is not a consumer-friendly book, it is dryly written, perhaps a reflection of the subject matter, and it is a step-by-step guide to a basic understanding of linguistics.

If you are interested in learning the basic vocabulary of linguistics so that you can converse knowledgeably about the phonology and morphology of word formation, this is a good book with which to start that exploration. The authors do a good job of breaking down linguistics into its component parts. Essentially, the book is a sophisticated outline of the subject matter in overview rather than an in-depth discourse.

It explains and defines linguistic terms and how they are used, somewhat like an expanded dictionary of linguistics. For example, Place of articulation is described as “This parameter in the description of consonants refers to the parts of the vocal tract involved in the production of a given sound.” This is followed by examples and then the next topic, Manner of articulation. It is short and sweet, no lengthy discourse into any single topic. And the authors deserve praise for making the topics accessible and understandable to a decently educated layperson.

Have you ever wondered how language sounds are written out so that everyone understands what sound is being discussed? The answer is found in the section “The Sounds of English, 2.1 Phonetic notation systems.” (There are several systems; the Oxford English Dictionary uses the International Phonetic Alphabet system.) The various systems are mentioned but not discussed in detail, as is appropriate for this overview book. It would have been nice, however, had there been direct pointers to sources of information on the systems not adhered to in this book.

This is not a book for everyday reading or for the person with a casual interest in language. It really is better used as a library reference. The book is short (including appendices and index the 1st edition is 208 pages), yet contains a great deal of information. I wouldn’t buy it for my library at $105, but at $33.75 it is a worthwhile addition to my collection and to the collection of anyone who wishes to grasp the fundamentals of linguistics. Without more details on what distinguishes the second edition from the first, I would suggest buying the first edition while it is available.

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