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  • The prism of grammar: How child language illuminates humanism
  • Lisa Matthewson
The prism of grammar: How child language illuminates humanism. By Tom Roeper. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. Pp. xviii, 354. ISBN 9780262512589. $18.95.

At the end of The prism of grammar (PoG), Tom Roeper suggests that the book may have been ‘a real roller-coaster ride’ (303). The metaphor is apt, at least for those who enjoy roller coasters: PoG is exhilarating. This extraordinary book is ambitious both in its intended audience—everyone—and in its coverage—dealing with topics as apparently disparate as the acquisition of quantifiers, the aspectual system of African American English, sociolinguistic attitudes toward dialects, the modularity of the mind, the ethics of science, and the dignity of the child. The book introduces nonlinguists to the astonishing process of language acquisition, while simultaneously providing food for thought for specialists in the field. R brings acquisition to life with many do-it-yourself ‘explorations’, intended to be played with a child in your neighborhood and/or developed into experiments in your lab. PoG is informal and entertaining, and R’s creativity and enthusiasm for his subject are evident in every chapter.

After two introductory chapters that set the stage, the core acquisition section is Part 2, ‘Why language acquisition is a challenge for the child’ (31–197). A primary goal here is to introduce nonlinguists, particularly parents and educators, to the complexity of the language-acquisition challenge, and to inspire respect for the intricacies of grammar and for the child as a creative and unique individual. Part 2 deals with a range of topics that include: word learning (Ch. 3), compounding (Ch. 4), reference (Ch. 5), recursion (Ch. 6), ellipsis (Ch. 7), and plurals (including multiple wh-questions and universal quantifiers, Ch. 8). Each chapter contains multiple explorations to try with children, most of which are supplemented by illustrations, and all of which are enjoyable.

R deliberately refrains from attaching age expectations to most of the explorations, and emphasizes throughout that failure to perform in an adult-like way is—with a few discussed exceptions— not indicative of any language disorder, and certainly not of any cognitive deficit. In some cases the explorations seem to be brand-new ideas, so that R himself does not know what children will do (e.g. on p. 166, where he postulates that ‘A child might seek greater consistency and go strongly for a phrasal plural’). Other explorations rely on anecdotal evidence or pilot studies, and still others are drawn from published research (e.g. on p. 167, where R discusses a partitivity experiment carried out with several hundred children). There are studies to interest both syntacticians and semanticists, including for the latter discussion of the temporal implicature of ‘and’ (151f.), and whether the denotations of plurals contain singletons (164ff.). The experiments are also adaptable for use in second language education or research, or for use in crosslinguistic semantic investigation.

One of many interesting explorations is on NP ellipsis (134ff.) in Ch. 7. This is designed to test the ‘verbal-over-visual-context principle’ (135), the idea that a linguistic antecedent trumps contextual information in ellipsis resolution. The reader is invited to put some nickels on a plate, with two of them heads up. Next add three pennies to the plate, with none of the pennies heads up, and say ‘I put three pennies on the plate. Are two __ heads up?’. The adult-like response (given by my eight-year-old recently) is ‘no’, since the correct ellipsis resolution requires us to answer whether two pennies are heads up. The non-adult-like response (given by my five-year-old) is ‘yes’.

What is interesting here is that my five-year-old had passed with flying colors a superficially similar ellipsis experiment that R discusses just a few pages earlier (§7.1). In that study, the adult [End Page 982] says ‘Look, here is some fruit’, then picks up two cookies and says ‘Did I take some?’. My daughter’s ability to give an adult-like denial in the experiment with cookies, but not in the one with pennies, is apparently not merely noise in the...


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