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The Social Art: Language and Its Uses - Ronald K.S. Macaulay

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Genre: Languages / Author: Ronald K.S. Macaulay / Edition: New Ed / Paperback / 256 Pages / Book is published 1996-07-18 by Oxford University Press Inc, USA

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      16.12.2005 20:33
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      Examines how we use language as a means of communication- sounds simple? think again!

      The Social Art-Language and its Uses

      At first sight, the title to this volume might strike you as a tad odd. What is the *Use* of language? Doesn't everybody know the answer to that question? Surely we use language to talk to each other, understand what's happening in Albert Square and to write reviews on Dooyoo?! Well this book is a linguist's eye view of language- Ronald Macaulay, the author, is, in fact, the Professor of Linguistics at Pitzer College, Claremont, California. Don't let this put you off though- this book was written for ordinary people like you and me, ("lay readers" as the blurb on the back of the book puts it), rather than PhD students or other boffins.

      Macaulay starts his quest for laying bare the bones of language, by tackling a very hotly debated subject- that of the Name. His first chapter is entitled **Give a Dog a Name** and he dares to suggest that when you call your pooch, for example, Trixibelle BlubberTum, your dog may not have the same associations with those words as you do. You are a human and you are programmed to Name things. Whatever you see around you, you Name. Look around the room you're in- is there anything there that hasn't been given a name yet? (If so, name it quickly before someone else does!). Your dog, (or cat, horse, homing pigeon etc), on the other hand, has neither the naming instinct nor ability. He associates a particular sound with a particular response- his own name could mean "food", "walkies", "no!", "give us a roll" or anything else. Macaulay argues that your pet cannot possibility understand the concept of names, since he is unable to perform the naming process himself. (Does your pet have a name for you?) As an animal owner, I'm not sure I agree with Macaulay on this point. It's easy to get drawn into conversations with my cat, for example, and I'm pretty sure we understand each other purrfectly, but it's an interesting theory all the same.

      Each chapter in this book looks at a different aspect of language. I won't go into details about each one, as that would spoil the fun for you, but let me guide you through what's on the menu. (**this denotes a chapter title**; otherwise they are my own words.)

      Stuff about Kids - my favourite bits.

      **Learning One's First Language**
      Ronald examines how children learn their mother tongue- a pretty remarkable feat when you think about it! He tries to identify the logical processes we make when we learn to speak for the first time- how do we remember all those new words, and how do we manage to invent completely new sentences we've never heard before, if we learn by copying (which, obviously, we do).

      **Children's Lore and Language**
      Ronald takes a look here at words which exist in the child's world alone. Words which we even forget as we become adults. One good example is the word you use to call a truce when you're playing a game. When I was a slip of a girl, we used to say "barley"- I had totally forgotten this, but when I read it memories came flooding back to me. The word you used will depend on where you lived- I'm a Midlands girl, and "barley" is used from Wales eastwards as far as Birmingham, as well as in Eastern Scotland. In other parts of the country you can hear "kings", "crosses", "fainites", "cree" and "keys" and there are other variations. Does that bring back any schoolyard memories to anyone?! Ronald also examines the jokes kids make with words and some of the rhymes that have been passed down for sometimes hundreds of years with very few changes. This chapter for me was fascinating, and I could have read a whole book on it- rather than a mere 9 pages!

      Grammar and Syntax

      This is not a book about how to write grammatically or how to improve your writing style. Instead, Ronald looks at the way we all use language naturally. He discusses the reasoning behind grammar books, (language is invented by everyone who speaks it- who has the right to say what is right and what is wrong? What are the so-called "rules" of grammar based on?) and explains what syntax is. Basically, syntax is the system of rules for putting words in the right order so that others can understand them. (Basically, so right words is them the rules system others of for putting the in order that syntax can understand.) If you see what I mean?

      Style and Variation

      Ronald looks at the way we alter our language, depending on whom we are talking to. There are varieties of language which can identify a person's social class, age and job. We use a different kind of language when we write compared to when we speak (so he says, anyway- actually I think some people make very little difference and write in a very "chatty" way, especially on dooyoo or in emails.) He also discusses whether there are differences in the way words are used by men compared with women, and looks at some rather dodgy research which had set out to prove that men use more aggressive language and that women are, of course, more flowery.

      Language, language everywhere…

      Ronald focuses his studies on English, as that is his area of expertise, but much of the science behind his reasoning applies to languages everywhere around the world. He devotes a chapter to **Languages of the World**, and makes some interesting comparisons with English. Rather than sticking to the more mundane lingos of our planet, he has a good old shufty at some lesser known specimens, for example, African tribal languages, Swahili, Arabic, Native American languages, Vietnamese and Thai. He shows how some languages are incredibly complex, and others remarkably concise. The scientific process behind pidgin and creole languages is explained very well. (By the way, if you've ever laughed at someone for speaking "pidgin" English, then you should know that English itself is a pidgin/creole language! It is a simplified form of the various languages brought over by successive invaders to our Isles- all of which were quite complicated with lots of different verb endings and cases (different endings on nouns). The mix of invaders didn't understand the intricacies of each other's languages, so just started missing off the hard bits on the end of words, and English was invented. Ok, it was rather a long process, but it's exactly the same process as happens these days when groups of people emigrate en masse and integrate with people who speak differently.

      The problematic world of learning a second language is explored- an area which I deal with on a daily basis as a teacher of English as a foreign language. Macaulay tries to explain why learning a language as an adult is just so d*mn hard compared to learning your mother tongue, and why very few of us master a second language fluently. (Personally, I blame the teachers….)

      Other delights include **Regional Dialects** (or "why do Brummies speak funny?", **Narratives** (or "spinning a good yarn") and **Gender** (just why on earth is 'chair' feminine in French, and 'young girl' neuter in German? - all is revealed).

      Straight Talking

      I found this book deeply engrossing, but I'm the first to admit I'm a bit of a sucker for any book about words or language. I do think, however, that plenty of it would be interesting for a lot of people, whether linguistics is your Mastermind subject or not. The bits about how kids learn, in particular, would appeal to almost everybody. You don't need to have studied language or be particularly good at grammar to understand the book. Grammatical terms are used fairly sparingly, and are explained with examples when they do occur. There's also a good glossary at the back for any unfamiliar terms. Actually, I think if your grammar's a bit rusty, it'd be far more enjoyable to refresh yourself by reading an absorbing book like this one than trying to plod through a traditional grammar book. If you enjoy Bill Bryson, but would like to read something a bit more serious, then give this one a try. I like Bill, but Ronald is a better authority to trust.

      Mr. M, despite working for an American university, is a Scot. He got his first degree from the University of St. Andrews, and then taught English as a Foreign Language in Portugal, (aah! just like me and JK Rowling….), and then Argentina. Then he upped and went to sunny California and got his PhD in 1971, becoming professor of Linguistics in 1973, and he's still there!

      The Social Art- Language and its Uses is copyright 1994, 241 pages, paperback. I got mine from Amazon, £12.34.

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    • Product Details

      This engagingly-written, highly readable volume introduces lay readers to the fascinating world of language. Replete with jokes, anecdotes, quotations, and readily intelligible examples, it offers a painless entree to the full range of linguistic knowledge. In thirty-one brief chapters, Macaulay delves into such topics as language acquisition, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, social dialects, sex differences, writing, style, register, conversation, narrative, swearing, rhetoric, second language learning, and linguistic change. The reader comes away with a new appreciation of the pleasure to be derived from the study of this complex and uniquely human phenomenon.