Review of Tom Roeper's 'The Prism of Grammar: How Child Language Illuminates Humanism'
Goodrich (R.A.)
Source: Metapsychology Online Reviews - Volume 14, Number 08, 2010
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  1. Largely based upon research undertaken in recent decades by the author, Thomas Roeper, and his colleagues, The Prism of Grammar is an engaged and engaging exploration of the grammatical complexities of child language. This engagement is much in evidence. It can be found throughout the book in five dozen experiments readers are invited to conduct with children between 2:6 and 7:0 years of age; it can be located in single chapters such as the succinct account of children's handling of plurality (159ff.) or their understanding of other minds (255ff.); it can be seen in a succession of chapters where speculations about ethical dimensions of children's capacity for language come to the fore. But arguably it is in the second of the four parts of this work that Roeper's most lasting contribution lies.
  2. Roeper explicitly states that his "entire book is an outgrowth of both early and recent proposals about language and mind by Noam Chomsky" (307, n. 1). At the same time, he warns readers not to expect him to "recount" the "history" of transformational-generative theories of language acquisition (xv). Nor does he systematically account for spoken and cognitive development stage by stage in The Prism of Grammar because his commitment to innate linguistic mechanisms, "like an internal organ," implies "language growth" rather than a developmental process of learning (290 & 291). Indeed, Roeper, following Chomsky, firmly fixes upon what constitutes the underlying or inborn competence of the language user. He does not, despite his many references to the Child Language Data Exchange System [accessible at: ] (e.g. 42-43, 59, 81) and to dialectical differences within American English (227ff.), focus upon the manifest or variable performance of speakers. Not unsurprisingly, therefore, largely grammatical or organisational characteristics of child language are time and again seen as evidence of natural human attributes, such as the sheer speed and early age of language onset during a period of little or no explicit instruction about its structure whilst the child nonetheless needs to grapple with the general rules applicable within his or her speech community.
  3. What, then, are the capacities demonstrated by children that underscore and thereby define Roeper's constant appeal to the conception of an innate universal grammar? Fortunately, for all his popularising bent, Roeper resists the unhelpful rhetorical flourishes occasionally infecting Chomsky himself, as found, for instance, in The Architecture of Language: To say that "language is not innate" is to say that there is no difference between my granddaughter, a rock and a rabbit. In other words, if you take a rock, a rabbit and my granddaughter and put them in a community where people are talking English, they'll all learn English. If people believe that, then they believe that language is not innate. If they believe that there is a difference between my granddaughter, a rabbit and a rock, then they believe that language is innate (2000, 50).
  4. In its place, readers are introduced to a set of "deep principles," to a "view of mind and language" where “Universal Grammar is a hypothesis about innate mental structure--accepted by the vast majority of linguists--that makes grammar akin to vision. Universal Grammar defines an infinite but still very narrow range of options for grammar. Some properties (such as the notion of hierarchical structure)...partake of broader cognitive ability, while others (such as the notions "noun" and "verb") are astonishingly precise (13).”
  5. Whilst the extent of linguists' acceptance of the innate is disputable, that is not to say they consequently subscribe to the extreme view that our minds are blank slates at birth. Logically speaking, furthermore, the range of grammatical options is indefinite in number rather than infinite, a conflation unwittingly perpetrated when Roeper slides, for example, from "We could keep on adding possessives or adjectives indefinitely" to "Grammar encompasses other kinds of infinity" (22). Nor does Roeper confront the accusation that, as Bronislaw Malinowski once maintained, when we talk in terms of traditional categories of verbs and nouns, we are already applying theoretical constructs to the phenomenon of speech.
  6. Leaving such criticisms aside, what Roeper initially emphasizes is the "syntactic and semantic subtlety" of the child where "context is often needed to confirm a hypothesis that Universal Grammar automatically delivers" (14; cf. 41-42) as well as the assumption that the normal child has "the inner formulas needed to acquire grammar," exposure to a specific language determining the one actually learnt (26). From here, the six chapters comprising the second part of his monograph introduce readers to the child's subtle capacities, capacities that illuminate the very nature of language and mind.
  7. Let us highlight these major capacities by way of some initial key claims. Firstly, when a child repeats or utters a word, that word refers to the whole object or event (33ff.; cf. 282). For instance, when infant Alyssa says "shh," whether she is apparently referring to a passing train or to boiling water or to the whistling kettle (or eventually all three), a whole object or event is supposedly involved. Or again, if we believe that Alyssa can discriminate amongst pronominal references, say, "stop that," "that's funny," "want that?" then, by Roeper's reckoning, she will construe the "that" as a whole action, a whole utterance, and a whole object respectively (42ff.).
  8. Next, as the child shifts from holophrastic or single-word utterances to two-word utterances, we are said to witness a change from reference to objects and events towards reference to relationships (49ff.). For example, when the toddler Alyssa says "Alessio shoe," the relational is uppermost irrespective of whether she is referring to her twin brother's footwear or she simply wants to put on his shoes. Furthermore, Roeper contends, she is unlikely to reverse the combination or order and say "shoe Alessio." The reason for such syntactic constraints is that Alyssa supposedly assigns dominance or superordination to one of the elements over the other such that "Alessio shoe" is about possession rather than a kind of shoe. As a result, she would not say, "mummy daddy" because the implied conjunction, "and," "allows neither form to be the primary one"; "it is a hidden democratic and" (56). With the appearance of telegraphic speech thereafter, we should now observe the emergence of recursive utterances such as "sillybilly sillybilly Alessio" (58ff.). In short, Alyssa is now capable of producing repeatable adjectival compounds, one of the very characteristics of adult-like discourse. Indeed, readers are later treated to an extended account of the pivotal role played by recursion or embedding at word, phrase, and clausal levels and its manifestation by way of possessives in the sixth chapter (108ff. & 118ff.).
  9. At this juncture, writes Roeper, "How we use both circumstance and syntax to triangulate meanings remains a mystery" (66). Here, he turns to the highly economical ways in which deictic words signal the shifting spatio-temporal facets ("here...there" and "now...then") and the persons and objects ("you...they" and "it...this") of our world. Later, in the seventh chapter, pronominal deixis is seen to parallel ellipsis, the unspoken in dialogue, where the "verbal rather than visual context" becomes the focus of attention (133ff.). Such expressions for Roeper "are laden with subjectivity, abstraction, and ambiguity" (64) irrespective of when children demonstrate a mastery of them. Nonetheless, he pursues meronymous (or part-whole) relationships as innate before "we invoke our knowledge of the world" (74). For example, one can imagine three year-old Alyssa telling brother Alessio, "I went to nonna; the gelati was yummy" where the definitive "the" refers to a much-loved dessert of their grandmother's cuisine. Such utterances, we are assured, testify to the child's capacity to switch from the general to the particular case. A little later, readers are introduced to various distinct uses of "there," including the presentational or indicative--"Put Alessio shoe there"--and the existential--"There no shoes" (80ff.). What kind of experience enables an Alyssa to distinguish between the indicative and the existential? Once again, we encounter Roeper contemplating the possibility that she already has the conception of the existential as part of her innate, universal grammar which is triggered once she hears how English expresses it. So, rather than "reeling down a hopeless slope of abstraction" as we contemplate the "fact that the child has so little difficulty," we are offered the alternative that "many concepts come prepackaged....making acquisition of the words that refer to them much, much easier" (101).
  10. By the end of his fifth chapter, Roeper takes these and other examples to be indicative of "abstract principles" which enable the "[r]ecognition of one feature" of language to nourish the recognition of others in some yet to be disclosed "dynamic" sequence (102). So it is, he purports, young children can construct referential chains within discourse and contexts; can shift "from general to particular"; and can operate "grammar" to "connect to ever-shifting experiences--indeed, to design new experiences" independently of "context or reality," thereby freeing "thoughts" from the "control" of "our environment" (102 & 103). On the basis of such principles it appears to be but a short step to engage the ethical or humanist dimensions of children's capacity for language in the latter half of The Prism of Grammar, a dimension pervading the pedagogic commitments of two generations of Roeper's family in Germany and the 'States (305).
  11. In the space remaining, let us exemplify what Roeper's commitment to a universal grammar which innately structures mind and shapes language tends to neglect. Is that why, for instance, the actual speech of adults interacting with children is rarely analysed (cf. 262-264) to the point where their scaffolding (rather than modelling or instructional) role is ignored? After the investigations of, say, Bruner, Cazden, and Woods since the 'seventies, let alone those of Vygotsky, Luria, and Gal'perin since the 'thirties, linguists have not been claiming that adults specifically instruct children about the underlying syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic rules of spoken language nor that children actually imitate adults' use of the same.
  12. Nor, to take another example, is it always clear what Roeper means by "context" except that it triggers innate grammatical endowments. Yet context is a notoriously elastic, multi-layered concept, stretching from the social, institutional, or cultural through the circumstantial or situational to the utterance or semantical. Merely by shifting intonational stress within an utterance, saying "Alyssa loves nonna" can contextually imply such meanings as "Alyssa, but not Alessio, loves nonna," "Alyssa loves, not hates, nonna," "Alyssa loves nonna, but not nonno," and so on.
  13. Such implications are rife in other ways crucial to the humanist or ethical exhortations of Roeper's monograph. Consider, for instance, his belief in the "hidden democratic and" (56). Is "democratic" to be construed metaphorically in the case of "Hitler and Himler"? Is there no difference between saying "Meet Alyssa and Alessio Bruciatura" and "Meet Alessio and Alyssa Bruciatura"? It would seem that spoken intonation and word order combine to override equal weighting and shift focus or emphasis for speaker and listener alike.
  14. Finally, some readers may find that Roeper has rushed too quickly into attributing the infant at the holophrastic or single-word utterance phase the "categorial" capacity, as Kurt Goldstein and colleagues once dubbed it, for abstraction under the appeal to "prepackaged" concepts (101; cf. 271). How do the putative concepts of children become akin to those of adults? One popular response is to point to the deeply entwined processes of learning language and learning through language. When Roeper eventually concedes that it is difficult to see how a child's practical knowledge of words can be simply separated from its experiential knowledge of world--though with conscious awareness or not remains unsaid--he does so largely in terms of the question, "how do we fit words to the world we see?" (171). What is too rapidly left in abeyance is how we fit the world to our words, how speech is not simply an incidental accompaniment of the child's activity, but becomes its very regulation, comprehension, and transformation.


Review of "Roeper (Tom) - The Prism of Grammar: How Child Language Illuminates Humanism"; Link.

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