LINGUIST List 14.805

Wed Mar 19 2003

Review: Linguistic Theories/Typology: Baker (2001)

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  1. Christiane Bongartz, The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar

Message 1: The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar

Date: Fri, 14 Mar 2003 20:08:28 -0500
From: Christiane Bongartz <cmbongaremail.uncc.edu>
Subject: The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar

Baker, Mark C. (2001) The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of
Grammar. Basic Books, hardback ISBN 0-465-00521-7, $28.00.

Christiane Bongartz, University of North-Carolina, Charlotte

[This book has not been announced on the LINGUIST List. --Eds.]

There are two goals underlying the argument presented in Mark Baker's The
Atoms of Language: to explain language diversity in terms of general
building blocks related by implication (i.e. a nested set of parameters),
and to make the case for parameterization as the key to understanding the
linguistic make-up of the human mind. Written for a lay audience, the book
is well organized, accessible, and effective in presenting the author's view
of the links between language typology and the psychological nature of
language. As this review will show, it also has a lot to offer to those with
expertise in linguistics, cognitive science, and related fields.

SYNOPSIS
As reflected in the title, Baker approaches the differences and
commonalities between human languages relying on analogies with chemistry
and atomic structure of chemical elements, so that a table of possible human
languages and their variation follows much the same principles as the
periodic table and the elements listed there. In seven chapters, the author
shows how describing individual language grammars from a parameter
perspective can yield generalizations about the basic elements (i.e. the
ingredients or atoms), of human language.

Chapter 1, 'The code talker paradox' serves as a gateway chapter,
introducing the reader to questions of linguistic ingredients via the
troubles the Japanese faced in decoding messages in Navajo. In asking about
the causes for the vast differences that made decoding impossible, Baker
sets the stage for his general inquiry: how can one account for linguistic
variation and simultaneously discover the shared characteristics of all
human languages. He acknowledges the cultural ties of language and points to
the crucial role of linguistics in linking culture and cognition through
inquiry into the nature of human language.

Chapter 2, 'The discovery of atoms' establishes the recipe-and-ingredient
analogy. Referring to Chomsky's (1981) original postulate that all human
languages can be thought of as composites of a small number of elementary
factors (i.e. parameters), Baker uses sentences from a variety of languages
to illustrate how such comparisons may lead to the discovery of basic
linguistic building blocks. The null-subject parameter and its binary
setting, Baker shows, can be deduced from the sample sentences.

In Chapter 3, 'Samples versus recipes', more generalizations emerge, mostly
derived from comparisons between English and Japanese. The chapter
illustrates how differences in word order lead to a generalized account of
headedness in terms of the head-directionality parameter (head-first in
English; head last in Japanese). Other languages patterning with these two
options are also mentioned.

Chapter 4, 'Baking a polysynthetic language' contains an extensive
comparison of English and Mohawk. Baker uses the data from these languages
to establish the polysynthesis parameter specifying that in Mohawk, but not
in English, verbal arguments must have a reflection in verbal morphology. He
suggests that the parameter enables children to acquire noun-incorporation,
object agreement, non-referential quantifies simultaneously, as these are
all implicationally related to the polysynthesis parameter.

With chapter 5, 'Alloys and compounds,' complications enter the picture of
binary parameter settings, and the reader is invited to think through
various mixed properties exhibited by further language samples. Salvaging
the notion of parameters, Baker argues, requires one of three logically
possible adjustments, the third of which he likes best (1. split a parameter
into several more specific ones; 2. resolve conflicting parametric demands
through principled negotiation, as in Optimality Theory; 3. include
non-binary parameters with three or more settings).

Chapter 6, 'Toward a periodic table of languages,' rounds out the discussion
of parameters and establishes a parameter hierarchy in approximation to the
periodic table of languages the author set out to assemble. The hierarchy is
given in the up-side-down tree model familiar from language genealogy.
Languages lower in the tree are proper subsets of those higher up, as
specified through parametric implication. Spanish, for example, is a
null-subject subset of the subject placement parameter, which is in turn a
subset of the verb attraction parameter, and so on, until the top node, the
polysynthesis parameter and basic binary setting, has been reached.

Chapter 7, 'Why parameters?' offers speculations about the origins of
parameterization and touches at issues of linguistic evolution. In the
absence of necessary evolutionary data, Baker underscores that to attest the
existence of parameters is an important contribution in itself.

DISCUSSION
The Atoms of Language presents a comprehensive and detailed account of the
parametric view of grammar and its representations in the human mind.
Countless language examples from all over the globe serve to illustrate
parameterization, making the book a valuable reference. Even though it is
written for a broad non-expert audience, linguists will find it a resource
that complements Joseph Greenberg's (1963) account of language universals.
The clarity of the argument will no doubt contribute to a better
understanding of current linguistic debate in that it presents abstract and
complex phenomena in such a clear and explicit argument.

One of the book's merits is the modesty accompanying major points of the
argument. Baker is careful to point out that much more work will be
necessary to establish a periodic table of parameters. The appeal of the
book is thus not so much that the reader walks away persuaded, but rather
aware of the questions being asked, of the methodology involved, and of the
difficulties accompanying the search for parameters.

Detailed criticism has been offered with respect to the plausibility of the
argument, in particular concerning the accuracy and adequacy of the
parameters presented (Trask, 2002). It is true that Baker oversimplifies at
times (his treatment of language change seems based on mere speculation and
circular), but then, this is an introductory text and as such well suited to
motivate further reading. This is not to say that criticism should be
ignored. On the contrary, getting the ball rolling in terms of a debate
about plausibility of parameters takes the discussion about language
variation to a new level of reasoning. It will be interesting to see
responses from proponents of parameterization that address the perceived
flaws in implication as depicted in the nested-parameter tree model.

Whether or not Baker's book is truly for the linguistic novice remains an
open question. Without basic knowledge of syntax such as lexical
categories, phrases, and syntactic functions, it will probably make for a
challenging read. However, many tables and a detailed glossary provide
valuable support. Overall, the author deals with prerequisite knowledge in
an admirable manner, though, using the first few chapters as a brief general
introduction to syntax integrated in advancing his case. This makes the
book a great teaching tool - in addition to the mastery of a linguistic
toolkit for grammar, it illustrates the excitement of the inquiries one can
pursue using these tools. It is a resource also for advanced linguistics
classes and can easily be complemented with more exhaustive and
controversial exploration of some of the questions touched at.

To sum up, The Atoms of Language successfully combines exposition of the
research program in linguistic parameterization with thoughtful
consideration of a broad audience and a wealth of supporting detail.
Careful in style, yet bold in its claims, the book illustrates and explains
linguistic diversity - a remarkable achievement.

REFERENCES
Anderson, S. R. & D. W. Lightfoot (2002) The language organ: linguistics as
cognitive physiology. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1981) Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.

Greenberg, J. (1963) Universals of language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lightfoot, D. (1999). The development of language: acquisition, change, and
evolution. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Trask, L. T. (2002). Review of Baker (2001), The atoms of language: the mind'
s hidden rules of grammar. Human Nature Review 2, 2002, 77-81.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Christiane Bongartz is Assistant Professor of English/Applied Linguistics at
the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Her research interests include
language typology, generative grammar and problems of second language
acquisition, especially those related to the syntax-morphology interface.
Her book "Noun combination in interlanguage: typology effects in complex
determiner phrases" was published in 2002 by Niemeyer, Tuebingen.
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