(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Molière’s comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (pr. 1670; The Would-Be Gentleman, 1675), the bourgeois protagonist Monsieur Jourdain is flattered to discover that he has been speaking prose all of his life. In The Literary Mind, Mark Turner assures readers that their earliest thoughts and expressions are literary and that primitive man in a preliterate age formed grammar by means of a literary mind. A professor of English affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, Turner has written widely on linguistics and cognitive theory. Although his linguistic analysis diverges sharply from that of transformational grammarians, he relies significantly on transformational theory for the development of his principal thesis and on transformationalist practice for his methodology.

Beginning in the mid-1950’s, generative-transformational grammarians began to explore the way speakers learn to construct phrases and sentences at an early age. The methodology received its first systematic formulation in Noam Chomsky’s influential Syntactic Structures (1957), a study of the way native speakers form phrases and sentences. Retaining the traditional grammatical terms like those for the parts of speech, Chomsky sought to describe precise rules that would account for the way English speakers form syntactic units. An early part of transformational theory was the concept of “kernel sentences,” the idea that a finite number of simple sentences was mastered by young children. Having mastered the patterns, they then could create sentences they had never heard before simply by applying the syntactic patterns of they had learned; later they could learn to combine them to form more complex sentences. Transformationalists regarded it as almost miraculous that after learning a few basic patterns, small children could construct sentences not previously learned or even encountered.

The scientific validity of this theory of language formation came under attack when grammarians realized that, however logical it appeared for English speakers, it could not explain how speakers of highly inflected languages, in which word order matters little, acquired a mastery of grammar. This realization led the grammarians to a more intensive study of language acquisition and a still newer field, that of psycholinguistics, which attempted to trace language acquisition to the brain. Eventually, transformationalists like Chomsky accepted the view that a module in the brain, acquired by speakers over thousands of years of evolution, both explained and facilitated language learning.

Turner’s book employs the transformationalist methodology of intensive analysis of simple sentences, though his perspective differs in important ways. As he points out, grammatical analysis normally operates at the level of the sentence. Also like transformationalists, he asks the reader to examine critically a large number of basically simple sentences, yet his examination concerns itself not so much with formal grammar as with logic, relationships, and meanings. Like the transformationalists, he has been led toward psycholinguistics for an explanation of language acquisition. Although he retains familiar terminology for numerous syntactic constructions, he creates his own terminology and applies familiar terms in an unusual manner.

Perhaps the first surprise occurs when the reader is asked to consider a sentence a story. By this Turner means that many sentences imply a plot line, as a story does. In an example such as “The boy hit a home run,” one encounters a character- subject and an action, thus making it a story. A story also may have an inanimate subject, as in the following: “The brook flows through the narrow valley.” These are examples of what Turner designates simple spatial stories, and obviously, millions of sentences of this type are uttered daily by speakers of all ages. Sentences such as “The sum of the angles of a triangle is 180 degrees” or “The man was happy,” however, are not stories, although they can become literary through minor additions, or, to use Turner’s term, projections. Yet it is clear that by Turner’s definition, a significant percentage of sentences spoken or written by anyone qualify as stories and therefore as literary.

He insists that simple spatial stories enable speakers to master schemes and relationships that connect them with the external world. Such concepts as causation, movement up and down, movement out and in, progression along a determined course are often expressed as spatial stories. Yet in exploring the relationship of concepts to stories, Turner raises more fundamental questions: whether concepts exist in the developing brain prior to expression in language or whether through language one learns the concepts. Turner concludes that present knowledge is inadequate to provide an answer.

On another level, spatial stories are susceptible to projection, a real or imaginary analogy to something different. The sentence...

(The entire section is 2059 words.)