Atoms of Language: The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar

Book Reviews | Nov 15th, 2006

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Author: Mark C. Baker
Publisher: Basic Books
Genre: Linguistics
Pages: 288
Retail Price: 9.99
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Everything in the universe is made up of the same 110+ elements. Things that seem so complicatedly different are actually made up of the same stuff, just slightly altered in some microscopic way.

Mark Baker brings up this idea to help explain Noam Chomsky’s parametric theory of language. While hundreds of languages are spoken on the planet with seemingly completely different grammatical structures, Baker explains that all languages adhere to a handful of rules, or parameters. For instance, in English, verbs usually come before the object, while in Japanese they appear at the end of the sentence. So a parameter could be “verbs either come before or after the object.” Yep, it’s that simple.

It’s “epiphanies” like the above that makes this book a chore to read. The book is filled with examples (mostly Navajo and Mohawk for some reason) that pretty much repeat over and over again the same thing: grammatical structure can be comparable between all languages, and even the weirdest differences can be explained using only a few parameters. This gives weight to Chomsky’s theories that all humans are innately programmed with language capabilities, and that babies quickly cognitively figure out which culture they’re in, and which appropriate set of parameters to use.

Mark Baker doesn’t offer anything new to readers already into linguistics, but his slow pace and clear, multiple examples might benefit the layman. Personally, I was disappointed as I had hoped for something more original.

Bottom Line: A not so cunning linguist.
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