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The Atoms Of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules Of Grammar 1st Edition

25 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465005215
ISBN-10: 0465005217
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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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (October 3, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465005217
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465005215
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,855,905 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By "swingpit" on May 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
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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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Jim Allan on September 21, 2003
Format: Paperback
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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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Michael Gunther on January 27, 2010
Format: Paperback
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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