The sound structure of English

The sound structure of English: An introduction. By Christopher McCully. (Cambridge introductions to the English language.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 233 pp. ISBN 9780521615495. $34.99.

Reviewed by Marc Pierce, University of Texas at Austin

This book offers a lucid introduction to English phonetics and phonology for the absolute beginner. It consists of eleven chapters, each of which contains exercises, a list of key terms, and suggestions for further reading. There are also an IPA chart, glossary, list of references, and topical index. An accompanying website provides answers to some of the exercises and useful associated materials.

The book opens with an ‘Introduction’ (1–18), which covers topics like the differences between written and spoken English .It is followed by three chapters on the English consonant system. The first, ‘Consonants (1): Contrastiveness’ (19–33), discusses how consonants contrast with each other and proposes a consonant inventory for English (determined by the extensive use of minimal pairs), while the second, ‘Consonants (2): Classification’ (34–50), lays out the classification of English consonants. The next chapter, ‘Consonants (3): Distribution’ (51–61), introduces the concept of the allophone and discusses such matters as the phonemic status of the glottal stop.

The next three chapters deal with syllables and syllabification in English. ‘Syllables (1): Introduction’ (62–73) covers topics like stress and the status of schwa. ‘Syllables (2): Constituents’ (74–90) develops the idea of syllable constituents and discusses sonority and syllable typology. ‘Syllables (3): Structure’ (91–106) presents a more extensive discussion of syllable constituents in English and introduces the idea of syllable weight.

The next three chapters turn to the English vowel system. ‘Vowels (1): Short vowels’ (107–26) and ‘Vowels (2): Long vowels and diphthongs’ (127–47) discuss the various subsystems of English vowels. ‘Vowels (3): Variation’ (148–79) examines diachronic and synchronic variation in the English vowel system, covering issues like the Great Vowel Shift and a synchronic process of vowel tensing.

The final chapter, ‘Problems, theories and representations’ (180–211), is the most theoretical of the volume, as it introduces the notion of distinctive features, examines derivational theories of phonology and optimality theory, and explicates them through reference to English phonological processes (e.g. r-insertion).

This book is a successful introductory text. The discussion is clear and careful, the style is accessible, and the exercises and accompanying web material definitely enhance the value of the book. Those intending to use the book in a North American setting should be aware that it is aimed at a British audience, but this is not a major barrier to the success of the book.