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The Atoms of Language: The Mind's…

The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar (original 2001; edition 2002)

by Mark C. Baker

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288439,063 (3.58)5
Title:The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar
Authors:Mark C. Baker
Info:Basic Books (2002), Paperback, 288 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar by Mark C. Baker (2001)



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This book is amazing! It's one of those scientific books written for a general audience that finds just the right balance of good writing and rigorous science.

The only other book I could compare it to (not in terms of content but in terms of quality writing and cumulative effect) is Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene. Like that book, this one finds stories and metaphors that make it really easy to understand otherwise difficult concepts. Yet like that one, this book doesn't take the metaphors too far, it knows when to say "this is where the metaphor doesn't apply". Also, it isn't afraid to challenge the reader with some pretty hard concepts and technical terms. I will admit that I didn't understand everything, but I was able to follow along 95% of the time. He doesn't present only ideas with solid acceptance from the scientific community; instead, he sometimes goes into areas that are still highly controversial, but he always tells you where he stands (and why) as well as where the opposing viewpoints stand (and why). In other words, he treats the reader like his scientific peer.

I constantly had moments of revelation while reading this, where I just felt like AHA it all fits together, it all makes sense! Unlike The Selfish Gene, this book is about linguistics! Which is an area that I haven't given enough thought to, but will be soon.

The basic thrust of the book is this: it asks the reader to forget about the fact that certain languages are related to other languages (the Germanic languages, for instance) and instead asks: is there a meaningful way of comparing languages that are seemingly NOTHING alike and come from completely different lineages? For example: is there a way of comparing English to Navajo, or to Japanese? On the surface, it seems like these languages cannot be more different. The complexities of each language, once you get into the nitty gritty of learning them, seem insurmountable. Not that it is impossible to learn them, but you have to learn a whole new way of thinking. It is not a simple process of mapping over a set of vocabulary words.

But this book shows us where these seemingly complex differences come from. It uses a chemical analogy throughout... and also to make it even simpler, a cooking analogy (since cooking is a form of chemistry). The experience of crackers and the experience of bread is completely different. However, when making both, the only difference is ONE ingredient: yeast. Similarly, if you look into languages, there are some key ingredients that can potentially make languages differ widely. If you look at an example sentence in English and an example sentence in Japanese, the surface differences seem as incompatible as bread and crackers. But if you analyze the sentences for the hidden components that structure them, it turns out there is only one ingredient (he calls them parameters) that separates English from Japanese.

He outlines a set of parameters that they have discovered already that act as underlying rules of all language. It seems that when a new language comes into being, at some point it 'chooses' whether to set one parameter or not (like choosing whether to add yeast or not). It gets more complicated when more than one parameter acts/interacts on a language, so that its effects aren't as easily isolated (but can still be deduced if you're a smarty pants linguist). What is curious is that with the dozen or so parameters they've discovered, it would seem like each combination would produce an equal amount of languages. Instead, 90 something percent of all languages follow one of two paths… and within those paths, some of the other decisions are much more common than others. Why would this be the case?

Going back to the chemistry analogy, he explains that just like certain combinations produce more stable compounds, others create unstable ones that are not likely to stick around or are radioactive. This seems to be true for language too. Which creates an interesting question as to why our brains are adapted to certain patterns for language forming and not others? And also, why is there variation at all? If we are born with a language instinct, why don't we all develop the same universal rules for language instead of a set of parameters that can be set in slightly different combinations in each language? Is there value to having many different languages if all languages are capable of expressing all thoughts (a point that he makes early on). The book ends on a bunch of philosophical questions like this that are very interesting.

Chapter 5 (Alloys and Compounds) was the most difficult and challenging chapter. When you get to this point, don't be discouraged. Read it slowly. I understood the general idea of it, but the specific examples sometimes gave me a hard time. But I didn't worry too much about not understanding it fully, as long as the big idea made sense.

Also: there is a glossary of linguistic terms in the back.. I didn't know this until I got to the very end, this could have been useful if I knew about it.

Some weird factoids I learned:

The structure of English is more closely related to Indonesian than to any of the European languages that you'd think it would be closer to, like French, Spanish, German, etc.

Do Eskimos really have a lot of words for snow? No this is a myth.

Children cannot learn a language by just watching television.

In the sentence "It is raining" what does the word "it" refer to? I've never thought of this. (In Spanish, you can just say "Raining." and that would be a grammatically correct complete sentence)

Why does the phrase 'big white house' sound okay but 'white big house' sound a little wrong? This question does not come up in this book, but I thought I'd write it in this review anyway so I won't forget to think about it more later. ( )
  JimmyChanga | Feb 1, 2011 |
Very good intro to a fairly advanced (but exciting) topic in linguistics:
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. ( )
2 vote misterO | Nov 24, 2009 |
I am not a linguist; I've encountered bits and pieces in popular cognitive science works. This book gave me an incredible amount of information, in painstaking detail. It did seem to me, however, that the author never really decided his target audience. There are moments of simplicity interspersed with difficult-to-follow jargon-filled expositions. I'm glad I finished it, because I could tell that there were insights worth being exposed to. I can't recommend it to many people, though, because I don't think most would slog through the detail without an interest in actually learning linguistics in part for its own sake.
1 vote caffron | Jul 13, 2007 |
oh boy... I think the guy has some really good ideas in there somewhere but this book is not for the novice or the faint-hearted. In fact, the initiated (I've an MA) may find this off-putting. The vast majority of the main section of this book is interminably dull: a catalogue of linguisti minutae which, though put together form something incredibly profound, find my view of the wood obscured by trees.

I'm going to have to put this to one side despite it being my second attempt and come back to it later... much later!
  arukiyomi | Jul 27, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465005225, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:04 -0400)

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