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John H. McWhorter
John Tokyo in the Letter Read
The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar
by Mark C. Baker
Basic Books, 2001
250 pp.; $28
Academic linguists are used to laymen assuming that we are professional polyglots—we are given to mimicking the eternal question "How many languages do you speak?" with affectionate exasperation. Many people also naturally assume that the linguist is a steward of the grammatical "pitfalls" one is taught to avoid, such as Billy and me for Billy and I—friends often joke that they feel like they need to "watch their grammar" around us.
Yet in reality, many linguists speak only one language, and not only are the tricky "blackboard grammar" rules irrelevant to what we do, but the very theoretical underpinnings of our field render them laughable little hoaxes. Mark Baker's The Atoms of Language is a welcome introduction to what many linguists are actually engaged in every day, helping to fill a glaring gap in the popular nonfiction literature until recently occupied only by Steven Pinker's bestseller, The Language Instinct.
Pinker built his presentation around the question of whether humans' ability to use language is innate. The book was masterfully written and provided an introduction to some fundamental tenets of modern linguistic theory. But the breadth of topics germane to the innateness argument, including data on infants' speech and language disorders, allowed for only brief consideration of the conception of grammatical structure with which Noam Chomsky revolutionized the linguistics field in the 1960s. Baker's is the first book aimed at a general readership that outlines the nuts and bolts of one of the main courses of current linguistics training and research—what is called the "Principles and Parameters" school.
The languages of the world differ in structure much more than is obvious from the typical American experience, where the languages we usually learn are relatives of English, thus built on a game plan familiar to us. For example, we all ...