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eBook The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar download
Author: Mark C. Baker
ISBN: 0465005225
Subcategory: Words Language & Grammar
Pages 288 pages
Publisher Basic Books; Reprint edition (October 8, 2002)
Language English
Category: Reference
Rating: 4.5
Votes: 640
ePUB size: 1471 kb
FB2 size: 1549 kb
DJVU size: 1584 kb
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eBook The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar download

by Mark C. Baker

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This is a landmark breakthrough both within linguistics, which will herewith finally become a full-fledged science, and in our understanding of the human mind.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. LINDSAY J. WHALEY (a1).

This is a landmark breakthrough both within linguistics, which will herewith finally become a full-fledged science, and in our understanding of the human mind.

Aldershot : Ashgate, 2003.

The Minds Hidden Rules of Grammar! or any other file from Books category a full-fledged science, and in our understanding of the human mind.

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

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 mutual intelligibility--of human thought.We are now on the verge of solving this problem. 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 herewith finally become a full-fledged science, and in our understanding of the human mind.
I have given this book a five-star rating for several reasons--five, to be exact. First, Mark Baker's writing is clear and accessible to non-linguists. Second, he has settled the language "differences" versus "similarities" debate. Third, he has pointed the way toward a resolution of the problem of what it is about language that seems to "shape" our thoughts. Fourth, he includes illustrations, tables, maps, and other visual aids that help readers understand his major points. Fifth, Baker provides effective support for readers in terms of clear notes, a list of references, a glossary of key terms, and an index—something which some academics seem to think we non-specialists aren’t interested in.

In this review, I will focus on the second point mentioned above, namely the question of which is more important in languages, their underlying grammar or their everyday features? But first, I will give some background that I hope will help readers unfamiliar with but curious about this topic.

Baker’s Atoms of Language introduces non-linguists to parameters, a concept in linguistics that says our minds have switches for grammar that determine the structure of our language, a kind of pre-wired “instinct” which is part of what it means to be a human being. Experience from birth with our own language(s) gives us cues or clues as to how the switches should be set. Most of these switches are simple binaries, like the on/off switches for the lights in our house.

For example, almost all languages have what we call subjects (S), verbs (V), and objects (O). If there were just two settings, then that would give us six options by simple multiplication. If we add in languages that have indeterminate patterns or those that are “polysynthetic” and don’t fit anywhere on the scale, there are eight “kinds” of language. In principle, these eight kinds of language could be evenly distributed in all of the world’s languages, but that’s not the case. There are two quite dominant patterns: SVO (ex. English) and SOV (ex. Japanese). These two patterns account for over 80% of all languages on several estimates, one in Baker and two online that I found.

In addition, some linguists claim that there are 5~6,000 languages, but only a few thousand have been studied well enough to say for sure what their pattern is. Baker says 5,000 on page 139, and includes a useful table page 128 summarizing the data, but for the latest percentages see the World Atlas of Language Structures Online at wals.info. Gell-Mann and Ruhlen have just over 2,000 languages in their list of languages “confirmed” by type. Those who think that English-like languages (SVO) are the norm—Jared Diamond in the Third Chimpanzee and Derek Bickerton (cited by Diamond) are wrong. There are more SOV languages, though not by a big margin.

Why should anyone care about such things?

The answer is that language is at the heart of who we are as individuals, as members of a culture, as citizens of a nation. But language is one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be human. If we want to find direct evidence of the soul, we have it in language.

But if there are only a couple of major patterns, why are there other, minor ones? Why not just one? And, more important, why are other languages so annoyingly difficult to learn for many people (at least in English speaking countries)?

Baker’s central thesis is that the mind contains a framework for language that makes it possible for us to think in patterns of words in such a way that all languages are fundamentally connected. It's what makes translation—and language teaching—possible. This framework is similar to a railroad junction and works through "parameters," which are settings, like train switches, that determine the direction a language takes. The choices are not unlimited; they are constrained by the logical possibilities in which thought can move, just as trains must stay on the tracks to get where they're going.

This sounds like heady stuff, indeed, and toward the end Baker seems to descend into Plato's world of pre-existing abstract entities that somehow are awakened by experience rather than being a response to being conscious. Quoting Steven Pinker and others (pages 227 to 230), Baker says that we are faced with the ultimate "mystery" of why such a structure as grammar should exist in the first place.

Baker's strength is in finding clear imagery to convey these complex ideas. On the one hand, he compares the theory of parameters to the periodic table of the elements used in chemistry, noting that we don't need to find every element right away to be able to use the table now (chapter 2, pages 44-49). On the other hand, Baker likens parameter theory to a recipe, where we can alter the flavor of a dish with only a handful of ingredients (chapter 3, pages 52-57). Both of these images helped me not only to understand how parameters work but how languages work, important from my perspective as an overseas teacher of English to speakers of other languages.

To return for a moment to the idea that there are two main ways in which people order their languages, consider soup. In America and some parts of Europe, this is a dish that is often thick, which its contents mushed or pureed into a soft consistency. You have it before a meal and sip it gingerly because it’s piping hot. If you wait until it cools off, it’s often thick. But in other parts of the world, notably the Far East where I have lived for almost 20 years, a soup is most often a clear broth with vegetables, meat, and so on clearly visible within it. You eat the items from it, and then, after the meal, you drink it from the bowl (or use a spoon if you wish). It has cooled off by that time.

Here are two diametrically opposed “soups.” They are prepared and consumed in drastically different ways, yet we recognize them as one thing. This analogy is useful, because people like me who are weak at chemistry can comprehend a recipe. Throughout Atoms of Language, Baker uses the recipe analogy to help us understand how things that seem so different are fundamentally the same. (Even I can get it, and my cooking is worse than my chemistry.)

Most important, perhaps, is that Baker’s Atoms of Language helps us understand why there are two opposing views about language and languages (chapter 2, pages 52-57). People who see a general or universal grammar of underlying patterns or recipes of languages tend to look at how all languages are connected “internally”. This internal linkage explains how and why we can translate languages and how and why people can learn new languages. Other people, however, emphasize the differences that we can see and hear in spoken and written language, the “external” parts of language. The difficulty of exact translation and frequent cross-linguistic confusion leads them to suspect that the differences outweigh the similarities. Baker likens this difference to those dinner guests who ask for his wife’s recipe for her homemade bread and those who prefer to take some extra slices home (pages 52-53).

Baker believes we need to appreciate both viewpoints.

He persuasively argues that when we do see differences of structures, we see them in all parts of the world. His most notable contribution comes from his careful study of Mohawk and other “polysynthetic” languages, ones which don’t fit the patterns linguists have observed in well over 90% of all languages studied so far (chapter 4). Polysynthetic languages are found from “temperate forests…to arid plateaus…to tropical bushlands” (page 117), from Siberia to Central Mexico (Table 4.1, page 115). Because such languages are spoken all over the world, Baker rejects the notion they are related to their physical environments (117). He also disagrees with the idea that such languages reflect their cultures. There is “no reason,” he says, “to suspect that Mohawk speakers think differently from English speakers in any fundamental sense” (page 118). In fact, if historical conditions had been different, such languages might be spoken by world leaders and the more prevalent types we are used to spoken by more “primitive” cultures.

As it happens, our “guns, germs, and steel” allowed our type to dominate the world. Today, polysynthetic languages happen to be spoken by very small language communities and are at risk of dying out as their speakers age and their offspring adopt other languages. Studying and preserving such languages can provide linguists a means of better understanding the nature of language itself.

Before closing, I should mention that the book builds in difficulty. The fifth and sixth chapters tend to have more technical detail, and at a couple of points Baker says that readers might skip certain sections. Most of the notes I jotted down in my copy of the book, however, cover the margins of the seventh and final chapter, where Baker argues not simply for his own theory of parameters but for the notion that there is something outside human experience, something that “exists” before it and that somehow comes to us without any physical means. It’s just there, in the mind, and not subject to any natural processes. In other words, he seems to reject the idea that constant experience coupled with natural selection over an incredibly long time played (and plays) a role in how languages work or change.

His counter arguments, which he terms “mysteries,” don’t always stand up. Discussing the opinions of Colin McGinn, Baker says that no one has ever seen “pictures” of the world or of something “true” in a brain autopsy (page 229). That’s a really odd statement; who has ever said that we might find such pictures in the brain? Apparently he (or McGinn) is not acquainted with what PET scans actually show in living brains. No, what Baker seems to mean is the “picture” of a “perfect right triangle” that we have in the mind even though he claims we have never “sensed” it (page 229).

But why can’t we have “sensed” patterns in what is around us soon after birth, starting when the senses begin to function in an orderly manner? I would contend that all our math formulas are ultimately derived from experience, and that we put that experience into ordered patterns that make sense far, far after the fact (a posteriori rather than a priori) when people had developed complex language for doing so. Just because we cannot call upon our memories of infancy with much if any certainty, we shouldn’t automatically discount experience as the basis of our “discovery” (or imposition) of patterns on the outside world.

If our species has only been around for a few thousand years, then Baker’s implication that there is some non-natural source of our abstract ideas might be the only resolution to McGinn’s mystery. But if our species has been around for a million years and if we had predecessors with brains needing to find patterns in the world to stay alive, then it is likely that what seem like pre-wired instincts from a noumenal source are actually the result of millions of years of animal evolution. Before Pythagoras, there were the Egyptians who designed the pyramids. Before them, there were others who made things that worked—eventually. Given what we know about modern trial and error, as Baker documents in his discussion of the 19th century discovery of the chemical table, I’d say that “perfect right triangles” are the result of a long series of mucking about making things that didn’t work perfectly at all. Eventually we got around to making triangles that worked pretty darn well, even in 3D. We don’t need to look for a printed picture of it in the brain at death; we won’t find it. We’ll find it in our having to discover ways to enhance our existence, or, in the case of the 3D triangles known as pyramids, our after-existence.

To return to Baker’s book itself: It’s a fascinating work by a thoughtful writer. It’s the best of the books I read in the last twelve months.
Whether you agree or not or buy into his theory is one thing. But what you have to admit is Mark Baker is hilarious and his writing is excellent. I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in the field, even if they are not interested in the theory, at least for the laughs!
The Atoms of Language by Mark Baker

One way of looking at this book is that it deals with what Mr. Baker calls the "Navajo Code Talker" paradox (that's basically the author's engaging way of introducing his subject): languages on this planet are very much alike (within limits, any human can learn any language) but also very different. The best example of this is the use of the "Navajo Code Talkers" during WWII: those american citizens were enrolled to translate important messages into their own language (Navajo) for communication on the battle front. The expectation was that Navajo being a hard language, Japanese code breakers would find it difficult to "decrypt" the messages. It appears the initiative was highly successful as the Japanese never managed to "break the code", showing that languages can be very different. But the fact that it is possible to translate back and forth between Navajo and English also shows that languages are not completely non-commensurable. So we have a bit of a paradox.

Mr. Baker uses throughout the book a chemical analogy: there are basic ingredients in the human psyche which he calls the atoms of language. What we observe in nature are the much more complicated analogues of molecules, with many atoms put together and interacting in interesting and not always predictable ways. I'm honestly not sure the analogy is particularly compelling, but the author does not take it so far that it becomes annoying.

So what are Mr. Baker's atoms? They're a bit abstract, even as far as atoms go, since they are really parameters for languages' grammars. If you've got a bit of a computer science mind, this might make some intuitive sense: if I want to produce procedurally an "object" that represents a grammar, what parameters do I need to specify to have a complete description of the grammar? If you're not into this kind of thinking the author will do quite a bit of fairly competent handholding to get you to the point where you should understand what he's saying.

Now what's so interesting about all this? First of all, it appears that parameters are not set randomly. There are certain combinations of parameters that are basically non-sequitur. That's not something that would have been obvious in advance, but it's equally well something that's not particularly easy to interpret. The author actually acknowledges that we don't have the final word on this topic.

In summary, this book provides a fairly pedagogical introduction to a rather advanced current research topic. I'm not entirely convinced that the atom and chemistry analogy route chose by the author was the best way to introduce the subject, but at the end of the day I must acknowledge he gets his point across.
It's so easy
Although very technical in places, this book offers a fascinating insight into the hidden grammatical structures underlying all languages -- regardless of their surface differences. I've read it through twice now and found it well worth the effort, even for a non-linguist.
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 out of Noam Chomsky's Minimalist Programme.
A set of small, minute particles assembled in certain finite order make up the infinite variety of the world and universe. Baker's analogy is apt and accessible. His explanation of Principles and Parameters is a solid, if basic, introduction to some heady ideas. While not the best introduction to linguistics, it does provide a path into a line of thought that seems, to me at least, to reflect the beginnings of a genuine working theory of the commonality of languages.
I can recommend the Kindle version with a caveat. A trifle, really. There is no image of the front cover provided, and when you download the book into your device (or my case, app), the back cover stand in for the cover image. How unfortunate.
Interesting insights into the nature of language.