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The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language (2000)

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (2000)
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4.04 of 5 Votes: 2
ISBN
0060958332 (ISBN13: 9780060958336)
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English
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harper perennial modern classics
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The Language Instinct: How The Mind C...
The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language (2000)

About book: In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote, “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children; while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.” The experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker, took this quote as the inspiration for his book on – what he considers – the idea that there exists an innate language instinct to be found across all cultures. Elaborating on the canonical linguistic ideas of Noam Chomsky, particularly in regard to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, Pinker presents the lay reader with numerous examples of how language acquisition, grammatical comprehension, and the tendency to speak, are all aspects of an innate linguistic tendency that human beings share, regardless of cultural background or specific language.Though Pinker generally agrees with Chomsky’s work on Universal Grammar, The Language Instinct focuses primarily on the idea that thoughts create language, a mental process that Pinker refers to as “mentalese”. This theoretical linguistic perspective is diametric to that of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, which suggests that language determines thought, and that the particular culture one belongs to is unique, in turn greatly affecting the way that a person communicates, utilizes language, and ultimately, perceives the world around them.In Chapter one, entitled “An Instinct to Acquire an Art”, Pinker covers the two opposing linguistic schools, and talks about Chomsky and his research on Universal grammar. Pinker begins his polemic on Whorfian claims about language coloring in human perspective by discussing Chomsky’s skepticism, concerning not merely the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, but the “Standard Social Science Model” (SSCM) in general. Pinker, siding with Chomsky, feels that, not only is the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis wrong, but the basic intellectual stance that “the human psyche is molded by the surrounding culture”, is a dramatic misconception inspired by the SSCM. However, as we see later in the book, Pinker will part ways with Chomsky, ideologically. Though they both feel that grammar is a discrete combinatorial system; and is also a soundly structured tool with words and rules that human beings have an innate tendency to acquire, Chomsky is apprehensive about whether or not this language instinct, or gene, is part of the process of evolutionary adaptation. Pinker feels that the language instinct is similar to the human eye in that it has the appearance of design. In other words, the eye, for human beings, is a tool engineered with a very specific purpose. It has the appearance of design, and elements of an engineered tool, just like a camera, or an engine. The significant point that Pinker does take from Chomsky’s work is his claim that “the same symbol-manipulating machinery, without exception, underlies the world’s languages.”A chapter by chapter synopsis of a book of such layered complexity would become tedious after chapter 5. Everything from Broca’s Aphasia (which can cause language impairment), to x-bar theory (a theoretical version of phrase structure proposed by Chomsky that compares common grammatical rules and structures across different languages), artificial intelligence, prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar, and language organs and grammar genes, is covered in this erudite defense of Universal Grammar. These examples are useful to Pinker because they assist him in elucidating his rational stance on a language of thought. Logic-heavy gems such as, “And if there can be two thoughts corresponding to one word, thoughts can’t be words”, are peppered throughout the book. When he talks about x-bar theory, he explains how, “A part of speech, then, is not a kind of meaning: it is a kind of token that obeys certain formal rules, like a chess piece or a poker chip.” Pinker’s strongest arguments for a Universal Grammar or a language of thought, primarily concern phrase structure within sentences. Chomsky laid much of the ground on syntactic structures in his linguistic work in the 1960’s. But Pinker sees grammar as a technical aspect of language that “offers a clear refutation of the empiricist doctrine that there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.” So, again, the book is covering a lot of linguistic ground concerning academic debates about what language essentially is, but for Pinker, an unabashed devotee of Darwin, The Language Instinct is also about how language is an innate tendency that undergoes evolutionary adaptive processes. He disagrees with the Whorfians and cultural relativists in the sense that he sees grammatical comprehension and language acquisition as innate tendencies. It’s not that he disagrees with the claim that culture can occasionally influence how people speak, or the way a language sounds. Pinker simply believes that there is a common capacity for speech and language utilization across all cultures, and it’s not that different. Again, he refers to the apparent design of language toward the end of chapter 10, entitled “Language Organs and Grammar Genes”, when he reflects, “I would expect the basic design of language, from x-bar syntax to phonological rules and vocabulary structure to be uniform across the species; how else could children learn to talk and adults understand one another.” In the academic arena of linguistics, this debate between people arguing that language is an innate instinct and those that feel that language influences thought is slightly less prominent than it was in the past. In example, one of the strongest claims supporting the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis is that the speakers of the Piraha tribe of South America were incapable of using recursion (inserting embedded clauses within sentences ad infinitum) in their language. In 2004, Peter Gordon conducted an experiment consisting of various counting exercises in order to determine whether or not the Piraha were capable of counting exact cardinalities. He concluded that the Piraha had numbers for one, few, and many, but were incapable of remembering large exact numbers. Gordon’s experimental design was relatively crude, and he merely concluded that the Piraha couldn’t count that well under the conditions of the experiment. Since then, the linguist Andrew Nevins, along with his colleagues concluded that Piraha does allow for some recursive embedding using verb suffixes and conversions of nouns to verbs. It is also possible to conjoin propositions within a sentence, such as “We ate a lot of the fish, but there was some fish that we did not eat." The debunking of linguistic myths such as the apparent absence of recursion in the Piraha language, are concrete proof that Pinker is on to something profound when he suggests an underlying linguistic design in human nature.One might argue that, throughout The Language Instinct, Pinker attempts to insert too many anecdotes from technical linguistics as well as from popular culture. The Language Instinct was one of Pinker’s first popular science books. This onslaught of information is understandable as he is a trained experimental psychologist trying to make technical linguistic explanations understandable to a lay audience. He does so with flying colors. There is also his Darwinist bent, along with the genetic approach to language research, which many traditional linguists (especially academic Whorfians, clearly) might find a little too reductionist. What stands out in this wonderfully informative book is Pinker’s basic, non-threatening theoretical stance that language is part of an adaptive process in nature. There may be notable superficial distinctions across different languages, but the basic structure of language and its apparent design is something that is utilized across all cultures, regardless of location, history, or linguistic origin. For Pinker, culture is not to be devalued or overlooked, but when lost in the cacophonous babel of world languages he opines, “I imagine seeing through the rhythms to the structures underneath, and sense that we all have the same minds.”

This review could be long or short. I wasn't sure if I wanted to waste the time, but it's a long book and there are some seriously interesting and seriously stupid things in it. It centers on the issue of language as learned or as instinct, which can be so fine an issue that most people really won’t care. For the short: it's very nice to see so much research on language presented and Pinker does a good job of explaining the often oversimplified theory that there is a genetic basis for understanding language (parts are probably split between your genetic code, but there is no one gene that controls all of it). But there is also some will-meltingly stupid material, like arguments that we can't have standards in our language because we can't judge whale songs and programming a useful speaking device wouldn't include commands like "don't split infinitives" because a screwdriver doesn't split infinitives. As he tries to illuminate how the brain creates language, the book is pretty interesting. As he tries to enforce his values, like that we shouldn't have any aesthetic consideration, he's worthless.Okay. That's the short one. Here’s a longer one.Pinker's central argument does nothing for me. That argument is that we have an instinct for creating language. You can construct sentences without thinking about the structure, and even when you babble you have a sense of when to pause for verbal grammar. Think of kids picking up swearing just by hearing it – they aren’t instructed in how to use it, but figure it out logically and intuitively. Since I already believe in this instinct and it seems pretty obvious that we do have it, an argument that it exists isn't impressive, though it was nice of him to collect so many anecdotes and studies that illustrate it to be the case. The best parts of the book are studies that show how versatile people are with language, like children picking up Pidgin or nonsense and converting them, within one generation, into grammatically sound modes of communication.The whole matter is kind of a bunk argument. Either our brains have an instinct for picking up and creating language, or we created languages that our brains are capable of picking up and using. If you think about it on those terms for so much as a minute, you'll get how silly the debate is. At best, both are partially true: we generate and imitate modes of expression that our brains can use readily. From the creation standpoint, why wouldn't we make something that's pretty close to what our brains can handle with unconscious ease? And from the instinct standpoint, why wouldn't we have instincts of some strength or other for the things that are created from inside our heads?Do we think about language or use it unconsciously? It’s obvious that we do both, though we wing it more than we plot it. It’s not an either/or problem, and that Pinker misses this almost entirely is sad. Parents help teach their children and foster language, from obvious examples like imparting the names for things and spelling of words, to what’s been found in recent scientific studies (not in this book) examining mastery of language in children who come from households with differing amounts of speech. Every day you probably struggle for words and consciously choose what to say at least some of the time – you know there is a conscious component to speech. There is unconscious and conscious education that he simply disregards because he's arguing for this instinct. Pinker choosing a side here feels like he's doing it for attention, and it's not as though this is the only time (in this book or academia in general) where it feels like his decision was unnecessary to the pursuit of truth.His side-arguments can get annoying. Sometimes he seems downright condescending on the intelligence of children and the deaf, and often he seems to skim rather than analyze evidence when it suits his arguments. For instance in the case of a Simon, a deaf boy whose deaf parents had improper signing that he did not pick up, Pinker makes serious assumptions about what he must have done with no evidence or even interviews with the boy in question to verify the conclusions. It’s not even anecdotal at that point; it’s conjecture, which does not belong next to the real research on Simon’s case. Conjecture is essential in analysis, but not like this, and not in making the ironclad decisions about the way minds work as Pinker does.By far his silliest argument is in favor of descriptivism over prescriptivism. Descriptivism is the school that describes how people speak; prescriptivism deals with how people ought to. Here, like in the bunk argument over using a language consciously or unconsciously, most intelligent people understand that language functions best when we mediate between the descriptive and prescriptive influences, changing the rules to better suit some things, but sticking to them for others. Being a scientist who observes, Pinker is interested in descriptivism as it shows the most about how we are inclined to speak and act in language. But being foolishly inclined to polar positions, he argues that we ought to only follows descriptivism and does it in downright stupid ways, like saying that we don't need a speaking machine is programmed to "not split infinitives" because screwdrivers already don't split infinitives. That’s moronic and if his opposition made a similar rhetorical move he would never allow it. His conclusions are that whatever we “get” by the language instinct should make up all the prescriptive rules, and that whatever we don’t make should constitute the rest. You know, in the way that we eat whatever tastes good, think whatever we like regardless of objective evidence and live in total anarchy without any government. Okay, those three examples are stupidity on my own part, but that’s what this pure-descriptive argument deserves. It comes from his oversimplified approach to language cognition, at first pretending that people don’t think or act in their education of language, and now proceeding that we shouldn’t think about how we’re going to use it or apply intentional value. That he quotes a Shakespearian character in defense his of anti-prescriptive campaign when that author taught writing seals the deal.Now before Pinker's fans get angry over the rating alone, if you hold your mouse button over the stars you see that each correlates to a statement. One star means "I didn't like it," and for the fascinating research in the book, Pinker became too annoying and questionable at too many points for me to like his book. So it gets one star because, you see, they have prescribed meaning and are not just whatever you want them to be.
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Reviews
Nicholas
Very interesting. Too long and technical for me. Most of the stuff I didn't care about. Not a criticism of the book but just a mismatch of interest.Middle was boring. Writing was good. Sharp style. Insults fools and posers. Funny. Charming. The perfect example is the beginning of chapter 11 pg 340. This is the way to argue. Funny, ridiculing, forceful and gets the message across.His metaphors are really good. Aspire to this.Language is built into the mind. It evolved by natural selection. It is
Joseph
Given the current divide in linguistics between the Functional/Cognitive theoretical approach to language and the formalist, generative approach which Pinker supports and has largely popularized with this book, The Language Instinct is an intellectually irresponsible endeavor. He frames linguistic nativism as a non-negotiable fact when actually, there is a fierce debate within linguistics which is moving away from ideas of those like Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky. The opposing school of thought argues that although the cognitive underpinnings of language are innate (having developed in evolutionary time), language itself is more like a new machine made out of old parts, which develops in social interaction and cannot be localized in any set of genes or related to any "instinct." Fraught with error, Pinker's pseudo-science is based on an approach that seeks not to fully understand the nature of real language as it exists, as it evolves over time, and as it is acquired by young children - but to rehash a pre-supposed view of language that was developed by "linguists" philosophizing as they sat in their armchairs in the 50s and 60s, fundamentally concerned with abstracting language into mathematical elegance rather than recognizing it for the complex system that it is. I highly recommend anyone who found themselves nodding at every turn as they read this book to read Tomasello's response "Language is not an Instinct" (to be found in full just by doing a google search). And I quote, "At heart, Chomskyan nativism is a philosophical endeavor to discern by means of logic what is uniquely and innately human. Cognitive and Functional approaches are scientific endeavors aimed at understanding how people learn and use natural languages." Couldn't have said it better myself.One star for effort, Pinky-Poo.
Dave Maddock
Wow, a fair number of angry 1-star reviews of this book here on Goodreads. I suspect these are anti-Chomskyites or bitter social scientists who didn't like Pinker's criticism of relativism in the final chapter. Or possibly, johnny-come-latelys who are carrying over their critique from his later book, The Blank Slate. As a pop-sci overview of modern linguistics (ie. the whole point of the book), this is excellent.Some random thoughts on criticism: Within the field Pinker certainly has staked out his own position as a defender of many of Chomsky's ideas (Chomsky the brilliant linguist, not Chomsky the idiot leftist tool), but the only reason to whine about that and give 1-star is if you aspire to be the ideologue you claim Pinker is. After all, these ideas are fundamental to the field and this is a very well-written book. As it happens, I agree with Pinker's views but to prove I don't review along party lines like one of these jackass whiners, check out my review of The Mismeasure of Man where I take heat for defending Gould despite not swallowing his relativism wholesale. (Incidentally, Pinker criticizes Gould several times herein.) I think Pinker does an admirable job trying to transcend false dichotomies like nature vs. nurture, which is why it annoys me so to see such ignorant reviews criticizing him for doing the opposite.
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