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The Prism of Grammar: How Child Language Illuminates Humanism (Bradford Books) Paperback – 6 Mar 2009

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"For three decades, Tom Roeper has been one of the most acute observers of semantic and grammatical subtleties in children's speech, and one of the most creative thinkers on how to connect linguistic theory with language acquisition research. It is nice to have his insights collected into a book, which will be a source of ideas for years to come." Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Language Instinct, Words and Rules, and The Stuff of Thought "It has been said that as children we wrestle with the deepest mysteries of our timethe mind-body problem, the existence of Godbut that adulthood's common emphasis on conformity purges this intellectual curiosity. In Tom Roeper's able hands we are treated to a journey back to this period of intense curiosity and mental growthone characterized by an exuberance of questions and comments, each reflecting intricate computations of the mind. But Roeper goes further and, with great courage and insight, attempts to show how the study of child language illuminates a much broader range of topics, from our capacity for free will to our often unconscious prejudices." Marc D. Hauser , Harvard College Professor, author of Moral Minds

About the Author

Tom Roeper, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts, has studied child language for thirty years, and is a co-author of the Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation (DELV), co-editor of Studies in Theoretical Psycholinguistics, and one of the founding editors of Language Acquisition. He has worked on numerous grants from National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health in the US and other national science foundations in Canada, Europe and Asia. He has lectured all over the world on these topics.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 6 reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Simple to read and incredibly sophisticated 15 Jan. 2008
By Barbara Pearson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I helped in the early stages of editing this book, but I don't think my small involvement should bar me from recommending a truly wonderful book. Prism is one of a kind. It's simple to read and also incredibly sophisticated. We have all heard toddlers and young children talk with their quaint ways of expressing things, but no one hears them like Tom Roeper does.

For example, have you noticed the difference between "oops" and "uh-oh"? The explanation on page 40 points it out. That is, if a big dog comes at you and you drop a tray of glasses you are carrying, you can say "uh-oh" to express your fears about the dog OR your dismay at dropping the glasses, but you can't say "oops" about the dog, just about dropping the glasses. The book gives you just the right stories to help find out if your child has figured out that you can't use "oops" for things unless you had a hand in them. My 33-month-old granddaughter got the difference, without a second's hesitation.

Another one of my favorites is an experiment from a colleague that Roeper has turned into an "exploration" for us. It's a very clear difference between "a" and "the" that you might think is too small for a child to pay attention to. You show the child a row of ducks (or pennies, or anything you have handy), and say "Here's a row of ducks. Take a duck." Then request either, "Now give me a duck," or "Now give me the duck." For "a duck," the children are invited to select a new duck for you. If they are sensitive to the difference, for "the duck," they will surrender the duck they just took (p. 71).

There are at least 50 Explorations like these and hundreds of child examples spread throughout the chapters, interspersed in a conversational, but very careful explanation of key grammatical concepts like Universal Grammar, merging, and why "and" is not one of the first relationships in children's early two-word speech.

Until this book, I was never able to explain to friends and relatives what is so fascinating and important about child language. Thanks to this Prism of Grammar, they can see for themselves (and you can, too).
Superb 1 Nov. 2013
By Librum - Published on
Format: Paperback
TPoG is a brilliant meditation on Chomskyan linguistics, child language acquisition, and the relation of both to philosophy of mind. It is not an exhaustive treatment, but, within its scope, a rigorously well-argued one. TPoG is chock full of fascinating facts about language and the developing mind, incisive critiques of certain less rigorous approaches to the analysis of both, as well as compelling hypotheses and -- in many instances -- suggestions for how they might be empirically pursued. Though Roeper is the first to admit that his thinking on some of the most worrying philosophical and linguistic problems may prove wrong, the positions he stakes he defends quite masterfully. TPoG is, if nothing else, food for great thought. It's a superb addition to the literature.
Good textbook 26 Feb. 2013
By Amy B. - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a required textbook for a course I am taking on language acquisition. It is easy to follow and provides interesting and relevant examples. It has a little more embellishment than I am used to. That is probably because it is intended more as a guide for parents or others who want to learn about child language, but it suffices as a textbook too.
1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The recursive prism 25 Nov. 2007
By William O'Grady - Published on
Format: Hardcover
At a number of points in this unique book, Tom Roeper observes that an essential feature of language is the capacity for recursion, the capacity to reproduce something inside itself. The Prism of Grammar is itself an exercise in recursion--a book about language acquisition, inside a book about language, inside a book about humanism.
Roeper introduces the humanist orientation of his work in the first chapter, outlining his commitment "to confront the great issues of the age, the `good' and the `evil' of linguistics and of life" (p. 4)--a theme to which he returns at greater length in the book's final four chapters, which are grouped together in a section entitled "Finding Philosophy and Morality in Every Sentence." His central thesis is that respect for human dignity must be paramount (296) and that science incompatible with this ideal should be suspect. The science of language that Roeper envisions and practices implements humanist ideals to the fullest possible extent: systematic creativity, a defining feature of language, is also the hallmark of human nature. Indeed, Roeper goes so far as to claim that "grammarlike rules" underlie every thought and every action, permitting the exercise of free will and creativity in all areas of life (20).
Embedded inside this humanist matrix is a concern for how language is viewed by non-specialists, citizens and policy makers alike. "Knowledge of how language works," Roeper observes, "is part of what we need to eliminate or reduce our quick, prejudicial social judgments about accents and tiny grammatical differences" (4). An understanding of the systematicity and legitimacy of every language and every dialect is, he argues, a prerequisite for an egalitarian society. This point is developed at some length in section III, "Microdialects and Language Diversity." Acknowledging the deep emotional connection between language variety and identity, Roeper makes the case against linguistic prejudice with the help of two striking illustrations.
The first is that the seeds of many grammars can be found inside English--elements of German verb-second word order show up in the high-register use of negative patterns such as It matters not, aspects of Spanish subject ellipsis in the casual Looks good, and a hint of Chinese object ellipsis in OK, everybody push! We are in this sense all "bilingual"--the grammar of cherished "standard English" is composed of a variety of subgrammars manifesting the very patterns that we might find strange or unsophisticated in another language.
Roeper offers an equally provocative and insightful treatment of African-American English, using it to illustrate how a dialect with roughly the same words as "standard" English can have a different grammar for the expression of event-related contrasts. He be playing baseball encodes an element of habituality not found in standard English He is playing baseball, and I done played baseball has a stative meaning that differentiates it from I did play baseball.
The heart of The Prism of Grammar, and what ultimately makes it a must-read, is Roeper's treatment of language acquisition--a suite of six chapters that presents one striking grammatical phenomenon after another, complete with do-at-home experiments that allow readers to see for themselves just how intricate language is and just how skillful children are at (eventually) figuring it all out.
Some of Roeper's examples focus on children's early successes. Two year olds have no problem distinguishing between boathouse and houseboat (60). Three year olds have figured out that Everyone went home permits a "distributed" interpretation in which everyone goes to his own home (162). Five year olds know that Mom likes not singing is the right sentence to use when Mom has a sore throat and that Mom likes no singing is right when she wants some peace and quiet (90).
Other examples highlight children's early missteps and shortcomings. Pre-school children often have trouble understanding and producing recursive possessives such as daddy's daddy's name or Cookie Monster's sister's picture (114ff). Five year olds know the difference between the there in There is a dog and the one in A dog is there, but two year olds don't (84-85). Children as old as six or seven who are asked whether a dog has tails will answer "yes," whereas adults say "no" (164). Many preschool children who are shown a picture of several girls each wearing a sweater will point to just one of the girls when asked Who is wearing a sweater? (p. 174), they'll provide just one answer when asked Who ate what? in situations that call for multiple answers ("John ate the cookie, Mary ate the cake, ...") (180), and they'll deny that every boy is riding a bike if shown a picture in which each of three boys is riding a bike and one bike has no rider (185).
Still other examples raise questions that remain to be answered--perhaps with the help of experiments that Roeper invites his readers to do for themselves. Do children grasp the difference between all and every? Show them a group of boxes and a group of circles, then ask them to do two simple things: point to all the boxes and point to every circle. Children who have figured out the all-every contrast will point to the entire group of boxes, but to individual circles. (94-95)
Have children figured out the effect that not has on the interpretation of all? Show them three plates--one containing just nickels, one containing just pennies, and the other containing a mixture of two types of coins. Then ask, "Show me the plate where the coins are not all pennies" (92).
Children know from a young age that a sentence such as John saw his mother and so did Bill can mean either that Bill saw John's mother or that he saw his own mother, but do they know that John saw his mother and Bill saw his can mean only that Bill saw his own mother? There's a way to test that too. There's even a way to figure out whether children know the difference between Ooops and Uh-oh! (40-41)
Roeper's discussion is full of contrasts like these, all designed to awaken the reader to the subtle complexities of human language and its importance for our understanding of human nature. As he has done throughout his career, he calls upon Universal Grammar, which he calls "a biological gift" (83), to help explain why language is the way it is and how children are able to acquire it with such success and apparent ease. Grammar, Roeper suggests, "is just like our arms and legs--an apparatus that we have from birth, whose uses we refine by experience" (247).
Readers need to know that this hypothesis is more contentious and controversial than Roeper would have us believe when he estimates that Universal Grammar is "accepted by the vast majority of linguists" (13). But beyond this caveat, I have no criticism to make of The Prism of Grammar. It is a superb book worthy of the attention of anyone committed to an understanding of language and its place in the larger study of development, cognition, and humanity.

[This review first appeared in the Columbia Teachers College Record; it is reproduced here with permission.]
2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
If you only read one book this year, read this one. 4 Aug. 2007
By DC David - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Anyone who wants to understand what Universal Grammar (Chomsky) is all about could do no better than to read Tom Roeper's excellent book. And it is a must-read for anyone interested in child language acquisition, language teachers (first and second), and speakers of (or listeners to!) non-standard English.

However, this book is about far more than that. Or should I say, Universal Grammar itself is about far more than you might think. The book, and UG, are about the nature of mind, and what it means to be a human person. In fact, the title of Chapter 2 is "Grammar's Gift to Our Image of Human Nature." In that chapter, Roeper makes the bold statement: "The body is just an extension of the mind. The body is designed to express the mind--the opposite of the common view that the body is real and the mind an illusion."

Modern science since the Enlightenment has struggled with these ideas. Today, the world's mind seems to have arrived at a position of extreme reductionism in its thinking about nature and the human person. We think of this mental attitude as having been arrived at by dint of dispassionate, rational thought. However, Roeper will convince you that observation and logic in fact lead us away from reductionism.

Linguistics occupies an interesting position - it claims for itself, with some justification, the status of a hard science; yet its subject matter is the stuff of poetry. Linguistics does not shy away from this nexus, and in its philosophical underpinnings aims to do justice to both sets of values. Roeper's book leads the reader to an understanding of how this might be so, and to the hope that this may be the future for the other sciences also.

Roeper writes as a scholar and a humanist. In his introduction to the book, he expresses the hope that he has written "like a human being." In this, above all, he has succeeded.
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