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1.1 The book


The book: organization and conventions


The organization of this book is based on the idea that human language has a small set of basic properties, each of which plays a role in the workings of language as an instrument for communication and thought. Each chapter in the book (after this one) introduces a new property. Chapter 2 discusses words and word meaning. Chapter 3 discusses phonological categories, the units that are combined to make word forms. Chapter 4 discusses phonological processes, the ways in which the units of word form interact with one another. Chapter 5 discusses compositionality, the principle that allows complex meanings to be expressed by combinations of words. Chapter 6 discusses how words are organized into larger units and how these allow us to refer to states and events in the world. Chapter 7 discusses how the grammars of languages divide the world into abstract conceptual categories. Chapter 8 discusses the productivity and flexibility of language and how grammar makes this possible.


Most linguistics texts draw their examples from an unconstrained set of languages. This has the disadvantage that students are left with little sense of how the different aspects of each language fit together. It also invites the kind of errors that may crop up when linguists rely on examples from a wide variety of other linguists. For these reasons, almost all of the examples in this book are limited to a set of nine languages. You can see the word for 'language' in each of these nine languages in the upper-left corner of the Table of Contents page, and, together with words in eight other languages, at the top of each page. If you're interested in knowing more about these languages, each is described briefly in this appendix.

Other references

Throughout the book I will include links to other references that are available online. In particular I will often link to articles within the English edition of the collaborative encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Wikipedia includes some articles that have not been written by knowledgeable people or have suffered from disagreements among the editors, but for important topics on language, the articles have been edited many times and have stabilized into relatively useful and reliable overviews of these topics. Because I will link to Wikipedia so often, I will use this special symbol with the Wikipedia "W" icon for these links:wikipedia.



Because this book is on the World-Wide Web and there is no paper version of it, you must have a Web browser to read it. Be sure to use an up-to-date version of the browser software; otherwise, the pages will not display properly, and you may not be able to listen to the sound files. The best-known browsers that are usable across different platforms (in particular both computers running Windows and running Macintosh OS) are Netscape (use version 7 or later), Firefox (use version 1 or later), and Opera (use version 8 or later). For Windows users, another option is Internet Explorer. For Macintosh users, another option is Safari.

There are many links to sound files in the book. To see if your browser is set up properly for playing these files, click on this link: this is a recording. There are also some links to movie files. If your browser is set up for these, you should see a picture of a woman below and should be able to play the movie by clicking on the controls below it. (The movie shows the sign in American Sign Language meaning 'movie'. For this and other ASL movies in the book, I am indebted to the Communications Technology Laboratory for their Sign Language Browser.)

Terms usually appear highlighted like this. When important terms are introduced for the first time, they appear like this. When such terms appear later in the book, there is often a link back to their first appearance. All of these important terms are also listed in the glossary. Concepts are sometimes displayed like this. Emphasized words appear this way.

The book is divided into chapters and sections, with one webpage for each section. Sections are divided into subsections. Many subsections begin with an example and one or more questions to get you started thinking about the topic; these examples and questions appear in

boxes like this.

This version of the book (3.0) includes some discussion of computational issues, that is, how it might be possible to program a computer to handle some aspects of language. These parts assume basic knowledge of computation and computer programming. You can safely skip them if you prefer. Computational parts appear in
boxes like this.

Some sections may also contain less important portions that can be skipped. These appear in an indented chunk of text in a smaller font like this.

Most sections also include some comments on the text that appear in the margin on the left

(something in the margin)

next to the part of the text that they refer to.

At the end of each chapter is a section containing problems on the material in the chapter. There is a link to the problems covering a given section at the bottom of that section page.

Linguistic examples

In the book, linguistic examples from languages other than English usually include a representation of the pronunciation of the word(s) and the meaning of the word(s). The meaning usually appears in the form of a gloss, that is, a word or brief phrase in English designed to give a general sense of what the expression means. Glosses appear between single quotes (' ').

For some linguistic examples the precise pronunciation is important; for others it isn't. When the pronunciation matters, the example is shown using phonetic symbols. A list of all of the symbols used in the book appears in this appendix. The symbols for sounds appear between slashes (//) or between angle brackets ([]); the difference between these two notational conventions will become clear in Chapter 3.

When precise pronunciation is not important, linguistic examples appear in italics. For languages like English that use the Roman alphabet, the standard orthography (spelling) is used. For languages that do not use the Roman alphabet (Chinese, Japanese, Amharic, and Inuktitut among our main group of nine languages), the examples are transliterated into the Roman alphabet. When an example consists of a complex word, a phrase, or a sentence in a language other than English, it will often appear in a standard three-line format. The first line is for the expression itself. In this line, words will sometimes be broken into constituent morphemes, that is, units of meaning, separated by hyphens (-). The second line is for the meanings of individuals words and morphemes. Here hyphens separate the meanings of morphemes that are separated by hyphens on the first line. Meanings for grammatical morphemes appear in small capitals, often abbreviated. When more than one word is used to indicate the meaning of a single morpheme, these words are joined by a colon (:). The third line is for a gloss for the whole expression, enclosed, as elsewhere, in single quotes. Here is a Spanish example.

Juan y Ana habla-ba-n con el piloto
Juan and Ana talk-impf-3p:pl with the:mas pilot
'Juan and Ana were talking with the pilot.'

In this example the word hablaban has been broken into three separate morphemes, and a meaning is given for each of these below the word in the second line. There are two aspects to the meaning of the third morpheme (-n), 3p (third person) and pl (plural), so these are joined by a colon. Don't worry if you don't understand what these morphemes are doing (or even what a morpheme is) at this point; all of this will be explained later.

English usage

The English used in this book is meant to be a relatively informal variety of standard written American English. As you will see in the section on what linguists study and the section on what linguists do not study, there is sometimes disagreement about what counts as standard usage. One advantage of writing a book on the Web is that I get to decide the conventions myself rather than being forced to conform to the standards imposed by an editor. Because this is a book about language and because particular usages can sometimes lead to negative, kneejerk responses, it may be worth mentioning two features of the English used in this book that do not count as standard for everybody. First, I will often use they, them, and their to refer to an unspecified singular person, as has been common in English speech and writing since at least the time of Shakespeare. An example is the sentence what language a child learns depends on what language they are exposed to. Second, I will avoid the word whom altogether. This word is very infrequent in any modern English spoken dialect and is not used in a consistent fashion in formal writing either.

Readers who had the misfortune of being taught about English grammar by rigidly traditional teachers will also notice split infinitives (to overwhelmingly reject this proposal), prepositions at the ends of clauses (as in the example with "singular they" above), and sentences beginning with and or but.

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