The social art

The social art: Language and its uses. 2nd edn. By Ronald Macaulay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. 256. ISBN 9780195187960. $24.99.

Reviewed by Charlotte Brammer, Samford University

In The social art: Language and its uses, Ronald Macaulay updates his classic introduction to linguistics, adding two new chapters that address some of the main theories in language development and language evolution. Also new to this edition is an appendix, appropriately titled ‘A note on Saussure, Bloomfield, and Chomsky’. In the introduction to this edition, M states that these additions ‘are intended to show how there is considerable controversy about certain claims that have been developed through a complex process of reasoning rather than being based on generally accepted objective evidence’ (ix). Working from descriptive and pragmatic perspectives, M critiques Noam Chomsky’s theories because ‘Chomsky vehemently rejects the notion that communication is central to the notion of language’ (55). Communication is never far removed from M’s discussion of the various aspects of the study of language.

M wrote this text for those who are new to the field of linguistics, and it may be particularly well suited for those in teacher education programs. The text has thirty-five chapters, averaging five pages each. Its brevity, however, does not indicate paucity of information. Chapter topics progress from language acquisition to syntax (three chapters) to semantics to pragmatics, before addressing the evolution of language, the history of English, and more recent topics in sociolinguistics. Each chapter provides key definitions and concepts about the particular topic as well as animated and often humorous examples. In Ch. 13, ‘Regional dialects’, M uses Peter Trudgill’s work from the Potteries area of England to demonstrate shifts in vowel sounds from one region to another. He then provides a brief anecdote of his own: ‘I once bought a freezer from someone who had grown up in New Jersey. He warned me that here was a plastic pen in it that sometimes rattled. Knowing that he had young children who were quite lively, the presence of a plastic pen did not seem surprising to me. It was years later that I realized that he had been talking about a plastic pan’ (65). Such pointed yet light-hearted prose makes seemingly complex concepts quite accessible for anyone new to the field.

In keeping with the goal of introducing the study of language, M includes an extensive glossary and list of references. The glossary offers clear definitions of linguistic terms, often incorporating examples to reinforce meaning, and the list of references offers a valuable starting point for more in depth research on the topics covered in the text. Communication is not just the center of M’s notion of language; it is also the rhetorical emphasis of this text.