2003-02-04: The Atoms of Language

The Atoms of Language

The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar (2001)

by Mark C. Baker (1959-)

This book was recommended by Steven Pinker, as an illustration of the nature of mental modules that make up the working set of facilities of the mind. The book is interesting, but doesn’t directly support Pinker’s ideas. The book is approachable for a non-specialist (at least this one).

Baker starts with a description of the perfect success of the Navajo code-talkers working for the Marines in the Pacific during WWII. The Japanese code-breakers were able to read American code traffic, but never deciphered the Navajo language. He calls this a paradox: On one hand, Navajo must be very different from English, or the Japanese listening to it would have figured out what was being said; on the other, the languages must be very similar, or the code-talkers could not have precisely translated the English messages of their commanders into and out of Navajo. From there he goes on to describe differences and similarities between many pairs of languages.

Baker ignores the differences in vocabulary (which most agree are purely arbitrary assignments of sounds to concepts), and addresses the variations in grammar among the world’s languages. He starts from Chomsky’s notion of Universal Grammar, and describes how a few “parameters” can be used to specify most of the details of variation among grammars. He makes an analogy between the state of linguistics now and that of chemistry just before Mendeleyev developed the Periodic Table of the elements. Mendeleyev’s insight allowed chemists to understand the systematic patterns of the characteristics of the elements, to predict the existence of unknown elements, and to understand the ways in which elements combine to make compounds. Similarly, linguists using parameters can understand and make predictions about grammars.

A language very different from English is Mohawk: verbs are augmented with many markers and other words to form near-sentences in a single word, and the words in a sentence can be in almost any order. Yet he finds eight similarities:

Agents are subjects, and undergoers are objects.

Objects combine with verbs before subjects (the verb-object condition).

All the core participants of the action denoted by the verb must be expressed grammatically (the completeness condition).

Pronouns can be omitted when their content is expressed by the verb.

Dislocated noun phrases can be attached to either side of a clause.

The pronoun object of a verb cannot refer to the same thing as the subject of that verb.

Nonreferential quantifiers (e.g., nobody) cannot be dislocated.

Elements inside the object can depend on the subject for their reference, but not vice versa (the reference condition).

From these and several other observations, Baker defines a number of parameters, assigns them priority, and arranges them into a hierarchical tree. Assigning values to each parameter yields a particular kind of grammar; he lists a few languages that use each grammar.

In discussing the nature of the human mental apparatus that could lead to parameters he says: “In any case our understanding of the nature of human beings seems to be short at least one major idea, either because the idea is beyond our collective ken or because no one happens to have had it yet—or because we paid no attention to the one who did have it.” I like this way of describing the nature of creativity in general.

Below, I have represented his hierarchy in plain text. Here are brief descriptions of the parameters mentioned. The tree is shown as an outline. Each line beginning after the first shows a setting of the parameter listed at the next higher level; it is followed by another parameter or the symbol ”*” and a number (the numbers are mine). The first table following the tree has comments about each numbered grammar. The second table describes the parameters briefly.


Yes: Adjective Neutralize

Noun:* 1

Verb: * 2

No: Head Directionality—Optional Polysynthesis

First/Yes: * 3

Last/Yes: * 4

Last/No: Ergative Case

Ergative: * 5

Accusative: Topic Prominent

Yes: * 6

No: * 7

First/No: Subject Side

End: * 8

Beginning: Verb Attraction

No: Serial Verbs

Yes: * 9

No: * 10

Yes: Subject Placement

Low: * 11

High: Null Subject

No: * 12

Yes: * 13

Ref Type Language (Region or Family)
1 Other Nonconfigurational Warlpiri (Australian)
2 Polysynthetic Mohawk (Macro-Siouan, N America), Ainu (Japan)
3 SVO and polysynthesis Chichewa (Niger-Congo), Selayarese (?)
4 SOV and polysynthesis Slave (), Quechua (S America)
5 Simple SOV (ergative) Greenlandic Eskimo, Dyirbal (Australian)
6 Simple SOV (accusative, topic prominent) Japanese, Choctaw (Muskogean, N America)
7 Simple SOV (accusative) Turkish (Altaic), Malayalam (Dravidian, India)
8 VOS Tzotzil (Mayan), Malagasy (Austronesian)
9 Simple SVO (serial verbs) Edo (Niger-Congo), Khmer (Mon-Khmer, SE Asia)
10 Simple SVO English, Indonesian (Austronesian), Chinese (Sino-Tibetan)
11 VSO Welsh (IE), Zapotec (Oto-Manguean, C America), Salish (N America)
12 Simple SVO French (IE-Romance)
13 Simple SVO (null subject) Spanish (IE-Romance), Romanian (IE-Romance)
? OVS Hixkaryana (Carib), Warao (Amazonia)
Parameter Description
Polysynthesis Verbs must include some expression of each of the main poarticipants in the event described by the verb (subject, object, indirect object).
Adjective Neutralize Adjectives are treated as a kind of verb, or as a kind of noun.
Head Directionality Heads follow phrases in forming larger phrases; or heads precede phrases in forming larger phrases.
Optional Polysynthesis All participants in an event can optionally be expressed in the verb that denotes the event.
Ergative Case The case marker on all subjects is the same (accusative); or the case marker on the subject of an intransitive verb is the same as the case marker on the object of a transitive verb (ergative).
Topic Prominent A sentence may be made up of an initial noun phrase (the topic), and a complete clause that is understood as a comment on that topic; or no topic phrase distinct from the clause is allowed.
Subject Side When two phrases are combined into a larger phrase and one of them is an article phrase or noun phrase, put the article or noun phrase at the end.
Verb Attraction Tense auxiliaries attract the verb to their position; or verbs attract tense auxiliaries to their position.
Serial Verbs Only one verb can be contained in each verb phrase; or more than one verb can be contained in a single verb phrase.
Subject Placement The subject of a clause is merged with the verb phrase; or the subject of a clause is merged with the auxiliary phrase.
Null Subject Each sentence requires a subject.

The descriptions and summaries above are too brief to be fully comprehensible. Fortunately Baker’s treatment is fairly exhaustive, and has many examples.

One type of prediction that can be made from this hierarchy concerns the order in which children learn the parameters of their languages. If the hierarchy has any meaning, then the higher parameters should be learned before the lower ones. Based on somewhat sketchy evidence, this appears to be the case, for those that have been studied.

The last chapter of the book is titled “Why Parameters?”. As he says: “The real mystery for a biological theory of linguistic diversity is not why there should be an innate recipe for language common to all humans but why that recipe should include parameters.” His answer is unsatisfying.

He discusses how parameters can change, based on historical evidence. For instance the parameters of Old English are different from Middle English, and the change can be seen in the historical texts. There is a tipping point based on stylistic usages that eventually come to be seen as normal.

This is an area where future research should prove interesting. Perhaps in a few years, Baker will have enough new information to justify a new edition, or a new book.


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