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The Atoms Of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules Of Grammar [Hardcover]

Mark C. Baker , Mark Baker
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 2, 2001 0465005217 978-0465005215 1
Whether all human languages are fundamentally the same or different has been a subject of debate for ages. This problem has deep philosophical implications: If languages are all the same, it implies a fundamental commonality-and thus the mutual intelligibility-of human thought.We are now on the verge of answering this question. Using a twenty-year-old theory proposed by the world's greatest living linguist, Noam Chomsky, researchers have found that the similarities among languages are more profound than the differences. Languages whose grammars seem completely incompatible may in fact be structurally almost identical, except for a difference in one simple rule. The discovery of these rules and how they may vary promises to yield a linguistic equivalent of the Periodic Table of the Elements: a single framework by which we can understand the fundamental structure of all human language. This is a landmark breakthrough, both within linguistics, which will thereby become a full-fledged science for the first time, and in our understanding of the human mind.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


"The Atoms of Language is a welcome introduction to what many linguists are actually engaged in every day." -- John McWhorter, Books & Culture

"A milestone in the field of linguistics." -- Publishers Weekly --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (October 2, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465005217
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465005215
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 7 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,585,989 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
45 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book, but not for everyone May 25, 2004
The Principle and Parameters approach in linguistics is one of Chomsky's most profound theoretical insights, and its elegance and depth in explaining linguistic phenomena across languages is one of the most impressive achievements in linguistics. Baker's book is the best popular introduction to the approach that I have read. It is not as fun and entertaining as Pinker, but it is certainly as understandable, and it does not "dumb down" quite as much as Pinker. The book is a quick read, and contains an impressive chapter on Mohawk. Baker takes the theoretical approaches that he introduces earlier in the book, applies it to the case of Mohawk, formulates a novel explanation, and shows how we can get a deep understanding of the structure of Mohawk from a few, easily understood and elegant principles.
All in all, the book is an excellent introduction to how linguistics is done, and the models through which linguists currently think about languages and linguistic phenomena. It gives the best, most understandable explanation of central theoretical concepts such as "parameter" and "I-language" that I have seen, and gives a brief overview of "optimality theory" and other hypotheses in competition to Chomsky's version of P&P.
There is much to learn from this book, but I think that only those with a genuine interest in and sympathy to generative linguistics will find this book illuminating. To appreciate the depth and insight of the Principles and Parameters approach, you need some mastery of the technicalities and constructions, and mastery of the technicalities requires patience.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Excitement of Dry Categorization September 21, 2003
The title of the book comes from the realization that the syntax of languages may be composed of true elements, like atoms which can normally combine only in particular ways so that certain kinds of langauges will not occur, or will do so for only for a short time before decomposing into a more stable type of language.
Linguists are still in the process of identifying these atoms and Baker is giving a popular account of the current state of investigation.
Mark C. Baker explains modern attempts to break down and categorize language by its syntax and by binary parameters that work thoughout each language providing rules that people following unconsciously in generating new utterances within any particular language.
He demonstrates that languages can be catagorized according to particular parameters which don't appear to have ANY relationship to the culture of the people speaking the language. For example, in building phrases within phrases most languages consistantly add new elements to phrases to create a larger phrase either always at the begnning of the smaller phrase or always at the end.
This seems to refute beliefs that differences in languages indicate fundamental differences in world views. Factually people of almost identical culture live side by side speaking languages that differ drastically syntactically.
So languages seemingly do NOT vary from each other in unlimited ways. Therefore there MUST be rules about what does and does not NORMALLY happen and presumably rules to the exceptions and to the exceptions to the exceptions.
These rules would be innate in human consciousness and would provide the foundations on which the actual syntax of a languages is based.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Parameter Theory For Everyone January 27, 2010
It's always interesting when a researcher provides an account of current work that can be understood by the general public, and that's what Mark Baker does in "The Atoms of Language." His general approach, which was pioneered by Noam Chomsky, is to explain the differences among languages in terms of a small number of "parameters" that characterize the phrasal grammar of the language. For example, whether the subject comes before or after the verb phrase, or whether the verb comes before or after its object.

Baker explains the technical concepts in an understandable way, and gives examples from many languages: English, Japanese, Mohawk, and Greenlandic Eskimo, to name just a few. He interestingly appeals to analogies from chemistry and bread-making, although these don't have to be taken seriously. In the final chapter, Baker steps back from the details of grammar to consider related ideas ranging from child language development to historical linguistics.

Much of the work is controversial; parameter theory is accepted by some linguists and disparaged by others. It is also not the easiest book to read, given the amount of detailed information that it contains. There are no prerequisites, but probably the readers who will enjoy it most are those who are already interested in language and know a bit about it. The biggest positive of the book is that readers will learn about an important topic of recent interest, by way of exploring some of the major grammatical differences in a wide variety of the world's languages.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Physics envy much?
Nineteenth-century linguists believed that there existed a 'deep structure', also known as 'universal grammar', underlying all languages, most clearly and purely expressed in the... Read more
Published 2 months ago by E. Worth
5.0 out of 5 stars A great introduction
This is a great introduction for those who are interested in the science of language as it has developed over the last 60 years. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Rameez Rahman
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting for such a complex topic
Generally speaking, it is a great read. Drags a little at the end but only because the author gets more detailed
Published 11 months ago by Sara A. Stuckenberg
5.0 out of 5 stars nice introduction to what linguists do
It is a very nice introduction to what linguists do, to what is a grammar, and the universal grammar. It is very well exemplified, and goes step by step.
Published 13 months ago by Roberta Oliveira
1.0 out of 5 stars Rationalist Fantasy
The book is not altogether poorly written, and contains lots of language trivia as padding - which I personally always enjoy. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Johnn Dwyer
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't let the naysayers put you off
TAoL is a deeply engaging and highly rewarding book. And brief to boot. It's also quite challenging. Read more
Published on May 16, 2011 by Librum
4.0 out of 5 stars Yay for the Kindle version
Mark Baker's Atoms of Language uses the analogy of the Periodic Table of Elements to describe the basis of the Principles and Parameters theory of language construction that grew... Read more
Published on July 29, 2010 by Stephen A. Caldwell
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good intro to a fairly advanced (but exciting) topic in...
The Atoms of Language by Mark Baker

One way of looking at this book is that it deals with what Mr. Read more
Published on November 24, 2009 by Un francais en angleterre
5.0 out of 5 stars It help me to overcome my fear to learn more languages
A very clear book, I really enjoyed reading it. Now I see the grammar as something with more sense, not just as a set of rules that every language adopts just for caprice.
Published on March 26, 2009 by Leonardo Laguna Ruiz
1.0 out of 5 stars Horrendous
At first I was a bit hesitant when approaching this book for my introductory linguistics class, but I wanted to give it a chance. Read more
Published on March 6, 2007 by Dugan Hayes
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