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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.]