Linguistics: An Introductory Reading List

Linguistics: 'The Conversation' (c) Bernard Spragg

Your mission:  to compile an introductory reading list for BA Linguistics.

Time allowed?  30 minutes


Quick, get a definition.

Linguistics is ‘The scientific study of language and its structure, including the study of grammar, syntax, and phonetics.  Specific branches of linguistics include sociolinguistics, dialectology, psycholinguistics, computational linguistics, comparative linguistics, and structural linguistics’.  (Oxford

Web search

A web search for ‘introduction to linguistics’ turns up:

  • David Hornby, Linguistics:  A Complete Introduction (Teach Yourself, 2014)

“The book uses a structure that mirrors many university courses on linguistics – with separate chapters focusing on linguistic thought, syntax, sound systems, morphology, semantics, pragmatics, language acquisition, and much more.”

  • P. H. Matthews, Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2003)

“Linguistics falls in the gap between arts and science, on the edges of which the most fascinating discoveries and the most important problems are found… thematic chapters look in turn at such areas as the prehistory of languages and their common origins, language and evolution, language in time and space (the nature of change inherent in language), grammars and dictionaries (how systematic is language?), and phonetics. Explication of the newest discoveries pertaining to language in the brain completes the coverage of all major aspects of linguistics…”

  • Loreto Todd, Introduction to Linguistics (York Handbooks), (Longman, 1987)

“A clear, straightforward guide to the rudiments of linguistics, aimed at A-level and undergraduate students.”

  • Janet Holmes, Nick Wilson, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (Learning about Language), (Routledge, 5thedition, 2017)

“In this best-selling introductory textbook, Janet Holmes and Nick Wilson examine the role of language in a variety of social contexts, considering both how language works and how it can be used to signal and interpret various aspects of social identity.”

The Shelf Test

You are standing on the ground floor of SOAS University of London library, with a subject guide in your hand.  Classmarks include Applied linguistics, Bilingualism, Etymology, Grammar, Mathematical linguistics, Phonology and Phonetics, Pigeons and creoles, Second-language acquisition, Syntax, Translation and interpretation and Writing systems.  As well as Asian and African languages and language families, there are references to American Indian languages, Basque, Finno-Ugrian languages, and Creole languages.

You pick out a book at random:

  • Barbara M Horvath and Paul Vaughan, Community Languages:  A Handbook (Clevedon, Philadelphia, Adelaide:  Multilingual Matters Ltd, 1991).

‘… we believe that we have included the languages that represent the majority of those involved in migration movements to English-speaking countries this century.’  (p. IX)

You recognise the next name from earlier:

  • Janet Holmes, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (UK:  Pearson Education Ltd, 2008, 3rdedition)

Flicking through, you read:

“Language varies in three major ways, which are interestingly interrelated – over time, in physical space, and socially.”  (p. 205)

The book covers, amongst other topics: multilingual speech communities, language shift and maintenance, linguistic variations, national and official languages, regional and social dialects, gender and age, ethnicity and social networks, language change, style, context and register, speech functions, politeness, stereotyping, analysing discourse.

Further along the shelves is a work on applied linguistics:

  • Norbert Schmitt (ed.), An Introduction to Applied Linguistics (London:  Arnold, 2002).

Its topics include:  2nd language acquisition, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, language learner – motivation, styles and strategies.  Another book focuses on syntax:

  • Donna Jo Napoli, Syntax:  Theory and Problems (OUP, 1993).

On page three you read:

“to get the reader started doing linguistic analysis of sentences and phrases (that is, syntactic analysis)…”

but a book on phonology has drawn your attention:

  • Francis Katamba, An Introduction to Phonology (Longman, 1989).

You read a passage (p.47) in which the author discusses the nature of the speech organs:

“The vocal tract is a long tube with holes at both the lip end and the throat end.  The shape of this tube can be modified by rounding the lips and making them protrude – and thus elongating the tube.”

You round your lips and form an exploratory pout.  Too late!  30 minutes are up.  Time to put your introductory reading list to the final test.

An Academic’s response: Dr Christopher Lucas

Some introductory books:

P. H. Matthews, Linguistics: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2003) is definitely an excellent place to start.

Thereafter, I recommend acquainting yourself early on with some of the major controversies in the field of linguistics. A good way to get started with this is to read the following two books, written by two of the most famous linguists working today, with two very different approaches to how we should understand language. Whose outlook and approach do you prefer and why?

Daniel Everett, Don’t Sleep: There Are Snakes (Profile Books, 2009) tells the fascinating story of the author’s many years of fieldwork studying the language of the Pirahã people of Amazonia. We also learn how, through his work with the Pirahã, Everett became convinced that the fundamental ideas of the world’s most influential linguist, Noam Chomsky, were flawed.

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (Penguin Books, 1994), by contrast, is an accessible and entertaining introduction to those big ideas of Chomsky’s, as well as a surprisingly comprehensive overview of many of the most important and interesting topics that linguists collectively investigate.

If you finish both of those, then I recommend two books by Guy Deutscher, which investigate two of the most fascinating questions in language: why do languages change, and how does the language you speak influence the way you think?

Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language (Arrow, 2006)

Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass (Arrow, 2011)

Further information

BA Linguistics and …

Dr Christopher Lucas, Convenor

UG and PG Linguistics degree programmes


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