THE ATOMS OF LANGUAGE: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar

Mark C. Baker, Author . Basic $28 (288p) ISBN 978-0-465-00521-5

Rutgers University linguist Baker delivers a milestone in the field of linguistics. In fact, the book goes far in establishing linguistics as a hard science. But before diving into linguistic jargon, Baker engagingly describes the success of the Navajo Code Talkers during WWII; their language proved the one cipher that eluded Japanese cryptographers. While most people would consider words the components of language—a lexical rather than a grammatical issue—Baker explores the "parametric theory" posited by, among others, Noam Chomsky, which cites grammatical structure or "parameters as the atoms of linguistic diversity." Many linguists find these parameters—"recipes" for how words are put together to form meaning—a satisfactory explanation for both the similarities and the differences between languages of completely different origins. English and Edo (West African), for example, are grammatically closer than English and French. Baker and others do not believe that word-order formulae stem from either cultural factors or "the survival dynamics of evolutionary biology." He doesn't, however, deny the cultural implications of language: numerous parameters prevented Napoleonic French, for example, from dominating Europe. Certain issues have weak explanations, such as the reasons that various Latinate languages developed divergent parameters. The concluding, somewhat indirect discussion of "hints of what parameters are related to" feels like a push for page count. Though Baker's comparison between linguistics and chemistry—i.e., between the detection of grammatical "recipes" and chemists' long struggle to establish the periodic table—may seem extreme to some, his clarification of complicated linguistics theories is more accessible than most. Sadly, few Americans care about word order (even in English), so this significant book may only get attention from specialists and libraries. (Nov. 8)

Reviewed on: 10/15/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-465-00522-2
Open Ebook - 288 pages - 978-0-7867-2456-7
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