The Prism of Grammar

The Prism of Grammar

How Child Language Illuminates Humanism

By Tom Roeper

Exploring the creativity of mind through children's language: how the tiniest utterances can illustrate the simple but abstract principles behind modern grammar—and reveal the innate structures of the mind.

A Bradford Book





Exploring the creativity of mind through children's language: how the tiniest utterances can illustrate the simple but abstract principles behind modern grammar—and reveal the innate structures of the mind.

Every sentence we hear is instantly analyzed by an inner grammar; just as a prism refracts a beam of light, grammar divides a stream of sound, linking diverse strings of information to different domains of mind—memory, vision, emotions, intentions. In The Prism of Grammar, Tom Roeper brings the abstract principles behind modern grammar to life by exploring the astonishing intricacies of child language. Adult expressions provide endless puzzles for the child to solve. The individual child's solutions ("Don't uncomfortable the cat" is one example) may amuse adults but they also reveal the complexity of language and the challenges of mastering it. The tiniest utterances, says Roeper, reflect the whole mind and engage the child's free will and sense of dignity. He offers numerous and novel "explorations"—many at the cutting edge of current work—that anyone can try, even in conversation around the dinner table. They elicit how the child confronts "recursion"—the heartbeat of grammar—through endless possessives ("John's mother's friend's car"), mysterious plurals, contradictory adjectives, the marvels of ellipsis, and the deep obscurity of reference ("there it is, right here"). They are not tests of skill; they are tools for discovery and delight, not diagnosis. Each chapter on acquisition begins with a commonsense look at how structures work—moving from the simple to the complex—and then turns to the literary and human dimensions of grammar. One important human dimension is the role of dialect in society and in the lives of children. Roeper devotes three chapters to the structure of African-American English and the challenge of responding to linguistic prejudice. Written in a lively style, accessible and gently provocative, The Prism of Grammar is for parents and teachers as well as students—for everyone who wants to understand how children gain and use language—and anyone interested in the social, philosophical, and ethical implications of how we see the growing mind emerge.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262182522 376 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 50 illus.


$24.95 T ISBN: 9780262512589 376 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 50 illus.


  • 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

  • Tom Roeper has an unmatched flair for identifying simple examples and spelling out both their amazing complexity and the richness of their theoretical implications. In this intriguing, ingenious, idiosyncratic and inspirational book he illustrates the enormity of the child's task in learning the simplest facts, from the meaning of 'it' to the contrast between 'painting a grey house' and 'painting a house grey'. He uses these and a wide variety of other examples to suggest practical activities for parents and researchers to indulge in with children. Most important, he emphasizes the educational and ethical consequences of taking child language seriously. This book will influence people's thinking not only on language acquisition but on human dignity and the nature of mind.

    Neil Smith

    Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, University College London

  • This engaging, perceptive, and wide-ranging study investigates individual alnguages in terms of the challenges they pose for the child as well as their often surprising relations to other languages and to the general principles that constitute the genetically-determined language faculty. It goes on to unravel prejudices and misunderstandings, and to offer a more general conception of how the mind functions and of our place in a community of mutual respect and understanding. Lucid and engaging, The Prism of Grammar leads the reader from striking observations and experiments with children that anyone can carry out to subtle and intricate issues that concern every parent—in fact, anyone seeking to understand who we are and what we should be.

    Noam Chomsky

    Institute Professor, MIT

  • It has been said that as children we wrestle with the deepest mysteries of our time the mind-body problem, the existence of God but 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 growth one 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