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