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The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind (Audiobook)

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The classic book on the development of human language by the world’s leading expert on language and the mind. In this classic, the world's expert on language and mind lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about language: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, and how it evolved. With deft use of examples of humor and The classic book on the development of human language by the world’s leading expert on language and the mind. In this classic, the world's expert on language and mind lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about language: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, and how it evolved. With deft use of examples of humor and wordplay, Steven Pinker weaves our vast knowledge of language into a compelling story: language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution. The Language Instinct received the William James Book Prize from the American Psychological Association and the Public Interest Award from the Linguistics Society of America. This edition includes an update on advances in the science of language since The Language Instinct was first published.


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The classic book on the development of human language by the world’s leading expert on language and the mind. In this classic, the world's expert on language and mind lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about language: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, and how it evolved. With deft use of examples of humor and The classic book on the development of human language by the world’s leading expert on language and the mind. In this classic, the world's expert on language and mind lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about language: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, and how it evolved. With deft use of examples of humor and wordplay, Steven Pinker weaves our vast knowledge of language into a compelling story: language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution. The Language Instinct received the William James Book Prize from the American Psychological Association and the Public Interest Award from the Linguistics Society of America. This edition includes an update on advances in the science of language since The Language Instinct was first published.

30 review for The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind (Audiobook)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Petra X is enjoying a road trip across the NE USA

    In my bookshop are lots of books like, 'First 100 Words' and "ABC with pictures", you know those sort of books. We talk to our babies in 'motherese' and we point to things and name them, but we do not teach our babies grammar. We say things like 'look at those puppies there, they are much smaller than these ones here'. We don't explain when to use words like 'those' or 'these' or 'there' and 'here' and where we put them in a sentence. We don't need to, Pinker says, Chomsky said, that grammar is In my bookshop are lots of books like, 'First 100 Words' and "ABC with pictures", you know those sort of books. We talk to our babies in 'motherese' and we point to things and name them, but we do not teach our babies grammar. We say things like 'look at those puppies there, they are much smaller than these ones here'. We don't explain when to use words like 'those' or 'these' or 'there' and 'here' and where we put them in a sentence. We don't need to, Pinker says, Chomsky said, that grammar is built-in. That no matter what language a child learns, they will use the words grammatically without any instruction. And if a child learns wildly different languages as say Welsh, Spanish and English (there are many people who grow up speaking these particular three in Patagonia) they will use the correct grammar as well as words without any difficulty at all. __________ Notes on reading: What I've learned so far: that it takes only one generation to turn a pidgin into a creole (language). Immigrant workers in Hawaii, Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans even Portuguese and Europeans spoke to each other in pidgin. Pidgin is a collection of words without any grammar. It's a bit like what most of us who are not linguistically-gifted speak when we travel. We mix the few words we know of the local language with English and (if British) shouted loudly and repetitively until the 'native' gets it. The children of the immigrant workers were looked after together when their parents were in the fields and they, just like that, because of the instinct for language, for grammar, turned the pidgin into a creole, a language that could express anything and everything. Children never speak pidgin, their brains impose structure on words and they learn from each other. Sadly, the window for language acquisition closes as puberty approaches. After that it is only talented individuals who can acquire a foreign language with perfect grammar and accent. Jamaican, which Jamaicans continually put down as the patois of the poor people', not proper 'standard English' is in fact a proper language with its own grammar, although a majority of the words are derived from English and Akan, Pinker says he's not 100% behind Chomsky's theories. He's pretty close though. I got bored with the chapters on Chomsky's language trees, I'm more interested in how we produce language than the structure of it. Great book, a difficult and academic read (at least to me) and boring in bits too but none of that takes away from opening up a new skein of thought for me, and I enjoy that more than anything else from a book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Manny

    There's a joke in this book that linguists really like. An English woman has just got off the plane at Boston's Logan airport. She takes a cab, and starts questioning the driver about where to obtain various local delicacies. "Oh yes," she says in her posh English accent. "Could you tell me where you can get scrod here?" And the driver replies, "You know, you don't often hear that in the pluperfect subjunctive!" __________________________________________ Another linguist joke, for people who haven't There's a joke in this book that linguists really like. An English woman has just got off the plane at Boston's Logan airport. She takes a cab, and starts questioning the driver about where to obtain various local delicacies. "Oh yes," she says in her posh English accent. "Could you tell me where you can get scrod here?" And the driver replies, "You know, you don't often hear that in the pluperfect subjunctive!" __________________________________________ Another linguist joke, for people who haven't already heard it. The guy is visiting the university, and managed to get himself thoroughly lost. He goes up to an academic-looking type and asks politely, "Excuse me, do you know which building the linguistics department is in?" "It's generally considered incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition" replies the academic. "I'm sorry!" says the visitor. "I mean, do you know which building the linguistics department is in, asshole?" __________________________________________ An American grad student and a German grad student are talking about their dissertations. "I've nearly finished mine," boasts the German. "It's in four volumes!" "Wow!" says the American, impressed. "What are they?" "Well," says the German. "The first one is the background, the second is the experiments, and the third is the analysis." "What about the fourth?" asks the American. "Oh! That's just the verbs." [You may need to know something about German word-order to find this amusing.:] __________________________________________ It's the day after the Great Vowel Shift, and this guy goes into a bar. "Can I have an ale?" he asks. And the barman replies, "I'm sorry sir, the fishmonger is next door." __________________________________________ I wondered where the Great Vowel Shift Joke came from, and - how could I not have guessed? - it turns out to be the work of the late, much-lamented James D. McCawley. Specifically, it comes from his piece "Linguistically Noteworthy Dates in May", which I reproduce here for your delectation: May 2, 1919. Baudouin de Courtenay concedes defeat in his bid for the presidency of Poland. May 3, 1955. Mouton & Co. discover how American libraries order books and scheme to cash in by starting several series of books on limericks. The person given charge of this project mishears and starts several series of books on linguistics. No one ever notices the mistake. May 5, 1403. The Great English Vowel Shift begins. Giles of Tottenham calls for ale at his favorite pub and is perplexed when the barmaid tells him that the fishmonger is next door. May 6, 1939. The University of Chicago trades Leonard Bloomfield to Yale University for two janitors and an undisclosed number of concrete gargoyles. May 7, 1966. r-less pronunciation is observed in eight kindergarten pupils in Secaucus, N.J. The governor of New Jersey stations national guardsmen along the banks of the Hudson. May 9, 1917. N. Ja. Marr discovers ROSH, the missing link for Japhetic unity. May 11, 1032. Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II orders isoglosses erected across northern Germany as defense against Viking intruders. May 12, 1965. Sydney Lamb announces discovery of the hypersememic stratum, setting off a wave of selling on the NYSE. May 13. Vowel Day. (Public holiday in Kabardian Autonomous Region). The ceremonial vowel is pronounced by all Kabardians as a symbol of brotherhood with all speakers of human languages. May 14, 519 B.C. Birth of Panini. May 15, 1964. J. Katz and J. Fodor are separated in 5-hour surgery from which neither recovers. May 17, 1966. J. R. Ross tells a clean joke. May 18, 1941. Quang Phuc Dong is captured by the Japanese and interned for the duration of hostilities. May 19. Diphthong Day. (Public holiday in Australia) May 20, 473 B.C. Publisher returns to Panini a manuscript entitled Saptadhyayi with a note requesting the addition of a chapter on phonology. Panini begins struggling to meet the publisher's deadline. May 21, 1962. First mention of The Sound Pattern of English as ‘in press’. May 23, 38,471 B.C. God creates language. May 26, 1945. Zellig Harris applies his newly formulated discovery procedures and discovers [t]. May 27, 1969. George Lakoff discovers the global rule. Supermarkets in Cambridge, Mass. are struck by frenzied buying of canned goods. May 29, 1962. Angular brackets are discovered. Classes at M.I.T. are dismissed and much Latvian plum brandy is consumed. May 30, 1939. Charles F. Hockett finishes composing the music for the Linguistic Society of America's anthem, ‘Can You Hear the Difference?’ May 31, 1951. Chomsky discovers Affix-hopping and is reprimanded by his father for discovering rules on shabas.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Madeleine

    I have this incredible mental block about reviewing nonfiction. My formal linguistics experience is limited to exactly one History of the English Language class as a college junior (and it remains one of the most fascinating, satisfying and illuminating classroom experiences I've ever had, university-level or otherwise), which was about when I realized that the study of language was up there with the school paper and my creative-writing courses in terms of the all-over fulfillment I found in it. I have this incredible mental block about reviewing nonfiction. My formal linguistics experience is limited to exactly one History of the English Language class as a college junior (and it remains one of the most fascinating, satisfying and illuminating classroom experiences I've ever had, university-level or otherwise), which was about when I realized that the study of language was up there with the school paper and my creative-writing courses in terms of the all-over fulfillment I found in it. It helped that I had an enthusiastic professor whose wealth of knowledge and general zeal turned my disappointment in the English department's lack of additional linguistic offerings into a fervent hunt for extracurricular reading material regarding the topic, though I can't help but feel that my self-guided tour through the field isn't yielding the same benefits I'd've received from exploring the same terrain with an expert leading the way. Hence my concern that I'll sound like I'm trying to pretend that I know what I'm talking about on some deeper level when my background in the roots of language is far more recreational than academic. All's I can say for sure is that The Language Instinct was great fun, beautifully written and an absolute whirlwind of information that covers a dizzying array of unexpected but thought-provokingly relevant subjects. Oh, and that Steven Pinker has the most admirably disheveled hair since Georges Perec. Their locks are not to be trifled with, nor, clearly, are their minds. The last language-centric book I read argued in favor of a point that had been laughed into noncredibility for years thanks to the implied racism it still carried from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis days, which is that the world actually looks different based on one's view of the world based on his or her culture and language (Through the Language Glass, written by Guy Deutscher and published in 2010 -- and which I must admit to having read long enough ago that I have shamefully forgotten many of its finer details but do recall as having made a rather convincing argument, as it delved into stuff such as how a language can reflect a culture's attitude toward its women) -- an hypothesis that Pinker decried within the first 50 pages of this 1994 bestseller as "wrong, all wrong," as it is his view that "discussions that assume that language determines thought carry on only by a collective suspension of disbelief." My copy of The Language Instinct includes Pinker's chapter-by-chapter asides about updates in the many areas he explored in a book he published more than two decades ago, including the neo-Whorfism that has sprung up in recent years, a revival that allowed works such as Through the Language Glass to be taken more seriously because the misguided blinders and red herrings of the linguistic avenue of contemplation have finally fallen away and its points can be made in such a way to sidestep the unfortunate pitfalls of the past. Seeing the inverse of an argument made just as successfully as my initial exposure to it was what sucked me in for good with this book. The overlapping of an argument's two sides and seeing familiar names, familiar backgrounds, familiar failings and completely different conclusions were all strangely rewarding payoffs for my own curious, solitary explorations. And that spark of recognition just kept cropping up in myriad forms as I read on and on (and on and on, as it took me, like, two months to finish this -- absolutely no fault of Pinker's, but rather that of my compulsion to juggle two and three books at once and work's nasty habit of reducing my reading time in two-week cycles). While the biology and neurobiology and child development and abnormal psych were all a bit of alien territory for me, Pinker presented them all in such accessible ways that my tactile-learner self was picking up everything he was putting down. Which made the friendlier faces I'd seen before all the more inviting: The progression of Old English to Middle English to Modern English was like having tea (or mead) with an old friend, reading about the Great Vowel Shift was like reminiscing with an old lover and wondering if maybe the stars are finally aligned in our favor, the uncanny commonalities between seemingly unrelated tongues was a kiddie ball pit wrapped in a trampoline for my brain, and the pages and chapters of grammatical theory? Be still, my pedantic heart! I didn't even mind, as a happily neurotic proofreader, when Pinker started asserting that maybe the Grammar Mavens have their priorities all wrong, that even nontraditional dialects have their merits, that "whom" ought to go the way of "ye" and its other equally antiquated brethren, that it's okay to hang on to the rules of usage for clarity's sake rather than browbeating those poor folks who don't work themselves into paroxysms of glee at the very notion of sentence diagrams over their truly nitpicky transgressions. I had no idea the lengths and detail necessary in asserting that something so mind-bogglingly complex but is so universally taken for granted -- that is, human speech -- is a deep-seated biological impulse, hard-wired into our brains to the point that we are all, in fact, baby geniuses when it comes to sussing out most of the nuances of our diabolically tricky native languages by the age of three. I had no well-formed opinion on the matter of language as a learned habit versus a communicative imperative instilled in us via evolution before coming into this but did Pinker ever reel me in, hold my attention and make me want to delve deeper into his research, theories and positions regarding the language instinct. Bearing witness to the impressive lengths he goes to to cover all his ground from every angle is reward enough for hearing him out for nearly 500 pages, because Pinker's dedication to the language instinct is evident enough in the miles of homework he did to make his point with armfuls of wide-ranging detail and chapter upon chapter of some truly compelling writing.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Tyas

    A friend, a diplomat’s daughter, when asked how she had managed to master Dutch when she went to a school in Suriname, shrugged. “I don’t know. I remember being so confused during the first day, not understanding a single word. But not so long after that, I was able to speak in Dutch. I just spoke, I don’t know how.” That had happened years ago, when she was still very young. We have always wondered how come children are able to learn language easily, while many, if not most adults, find the task A friend, a diplomat’s daughter, when asked how she had managed to master Dutch when she went to a school in Suriname, shrugged. “I don’t know. I remember being so confused during the first day, not understanding a single word. But not so long after that, I was able to speak in Dutch. I just spoke, I don’t know how.” That had happened years ago, when she was still very young. We have always wondered how come children are able to learn language easily, while many, if not most adults, find the task of learning a new language bewildering, bordering with the impossible. Plus, children are not just great imitators. If they were, we would only be repeating things our parents had told us when we were small. But we don’t. We don’t just mimic our parents’ words. Something in our neural circuitry does more than just copying; it analyses grammar, it finds for pattern, it composes new combination of words... frighteningly complex processes that, so far, cannot even be matched by the most advanced of AI. C3PO is still a long way to go. The ability of learning language is one of the many subjects covered by the book The Language Instinct, written by Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist in Harvard. (No, he’s not some crazy linguist who enjoys slaying people.) Language is probably the hallmark of human race. We boast our ability to communicate in words, a feature of our culture that no other living forms have. But Pinker shows us that far from being a cultural invention, language is actually an instinct. And because it is, then despite the doubts of the likes of Chomsky, it must be built gradually in the lineages one of which led to us thanks to natural selection. Aiming towards the goal of convincing us about that main point of language being an instinct, Pinker wove an abundance of evidence into this clear, mostly easy-to-swallow book. I said most, because to be frank at times I was lost among a wealth of linguistic terms that I had to crawl through, trying to just grab the general point of some parts. Nevertheless, I like Pinker’s book for dissecting language thoroughly. My favourite part is of course about the language mavens – people who think they have the task to safeguard the purity of language and grammar. Pinker showed us that many instances of ‘ungrammatical’ words or sentences according to those mavens, are actually grammatical according to how our brain works. Very enlightening, especially for someone like me who has for quite some time lost her faith in the tyranny of KBBI and EYD of the Indonesian language. (Our own language mavens, for instance, would waste their sweat telling us that the correct spelling for ‘lembab’ is ‘lembap’, though you understand that both mean the same anyway, and that you may not speak of ‘jam delapan’, but ‘pukul delapan’ instead.) But hey, if this sounds like telling us to ditch our dictionaries and standard spellings and pronunciation altogether, what am I doing, writing something in what, I hope, is a neat piece of review, instead 0f sumth1n l1k3 d33s? (You might even notice that I even care to hit the spacebar twice after a period, but only once after a comma.) Well, when I talk with my sister and brother, or with my bestfriends, sometimes we use words and phrases only we understand. (I wager none of you know what an ‘exedol’ is.) Sometimes we don’t even have to finish our sentences. Our experience together has created specific words and phrases and shaped the language that we use when we communicate with each other. But, when I write something, keeping a general reader in mind, I must be careful to use words and phrases most, if not all, readers would understand, presenting my thought clearly, preventing misunderstanding or confusion (except if that is exactly my intention, but Joyce I am not). Hence my writing style – but trust me, in verbal communication, I might sound very, very different. Language is far more interesting than filling up blanks on a question sheet with the right form of verbs, and Steven Pinker has a way of revealing to us how amazing our language and our brain are.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    I had The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language out of the library for the entire summer. I finally finished it by actively reading it on the train for a couple of weeks. It's interesting, don't get me wrong, it's just LONG and has enough dull/confusing stretches that I couldn't bring myself to read it in my free time - it was pretty much a train-only book. The book's underlying claim is that all human beings are born with something Pinker calls a Universal Grammar, which causes us to I had The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language out of the library for the entire summer. I finally finished it by actively reading it on the train for a couple of weeks. It's interesting, don't get me wrong, it's just LONG and has enough dull/confusing stretches that I couldn't bring myself to read it in my free time - it was pretty much a train-only book. The book's underlying claim is that all human beings are born with something Pinker calls a Universal Grammar, which causes us to acquire language instinctively. Whether we are born into an English or Kinyarwandan or sign-language community affects only the details of our language acquisition - we are wired to understand the way language works. He makes many good points, and I learned a lot from reading this book, but something underlying the text was somewhat disturbing to me (and it's not just the way he seems to revere Noam Chomsky as a god, quoting him earnestly and often, and almost overemphasizing the one point where he disagrees with Chomsky as if to say, "Look, all you people who think I'm just digesting Chomsky for the masses - I DO have my own thoughts! So there!"). It's that Pinker is 100% an objectivist, believing that our language and culture don't really affect the underlying processes in our minds and that human beings are ultimately the same, whereas I can't see the world without some degree of relativity slipping in, thinking that we are all very very similar and are justified in acting as if we are all the same, but that there are subtle differences that we may not entirely be able to overcome. I think lanugage, at least to a small degree, does affect the way we think and process the world, even if the differences are mostly ones we can see past or work around when talking with others from a different language background. (I laughed every time I turned the book over and saw the quote on the back from William F. Buckley, Jr.: "Steven Pinker is, I think, engagingly wrong in some of his conclusions, but the operative word here is engagingly. He reminds us of the pleasures of reading about language, provided people like him are at the wheel.") A few details I really enjoyed about this book: Case studies and quotes from people with various neurological disorders affecting their language abilities. The detail to which Pinker addressed sign languages, showing how language acquisition follows the same steps whether it is spoken or gestured (deaf babies "babble" with their hands at the same age that hearing babies babble with their mouths). The linguistics primers, which had me making phoneme sounds and sticking my finger in my mouth to see how my tongue and lips were arranged (while on the train!). Reasons why the "language mavens" (people who bemoan the decline of English) are often wrong. This is definitely a worthwhile read if you're interested in linguistics but haven't studied much on the topic yet. There's a lot of value in this book, even though some passages do get overwhelmingly dry or pedantic (pages of sentence diagramming scattered throughout the book, for example). I wouldn't recommend it to a casual reader, since I kind of had to will myself to finish reading the book, but I do think I learned a lot for sticking it out.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    Steven Pinker and I should be natural enemies. He's a representative of what I consider to be the smarmy, science-precludes-all-else school of hung-up modernist reductionists, while I fly the flag of what he considers to be the wishy-washy, Nietzsche-damaged academic Left. And yet it's difficult for me not to have some respect for his project. When he's not making potshots at relativism(s), he is generally quite lucid and charming, and throughout writes with a clear, approachable logic. By cogita Steven Pinker and I should be natural enemies. He's a representative of what I consider to be the smarmy, science-precludes-all-else school of hung-up modernist reductionists, while I fly the flag of what he considers to be the wishy-washy, Nietzsche-damaged academic Left. And yet it's difficult for me not to have some respect for his project. When he's not making potshots at relativism(s), he is generally quite lucid and charming, and throughout writes with a clear, approachable logic. By cogitating on the structure of Creole languages and the speech patterns of aphasics, he makes a very, very strong case for a universal grammar. While there are suggestions that certain features of universal aren't present in some languages, it seems to be a reasonable hypothesis. I will say, as an arch-empiricist and an arch-skeptic, that there's a very strong chance that grammatical structures quite likely have a social rather than a strictly evolutionary basis, but the idea is certainly thought-provoking. And, importantly for us moody relativists, he has convinced me (in a way that Peter Singer totally didn't) of the democratic potential of the notion of innate human nature. I do feel that he utilizes a certain circular logic. In Pinker's view, morphemes fit into the framework of syntax, and therefore language is innate. What is a morpheme? Something that fits into the framework of syntax. Also, he largely relies on generalizations rather than universals. Oh, and he claims signifiers are arbitrary, even in the case of onomatopoeia. And yet he tries to claim that certain signifiers are non-arbitrary because we evolved in certain ways. This is just a glaring example that implies, to me, that Pinker used his data to fit his conclusion. Bad science booohissss. But while these problems call into question his work and method, it's still a work I have the utmost respect for, and that everyone interested in language, whether liquored-up French deconstructionist or icy positivist, needs to read.

  7. 5 out of 5

    David

    Previously, I had read Steven Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought", which is also an excellent book. I enjoyed that book, so I next read this one--and I'm glad I did. "The Language Instinct" is an absolutely fascinating book! The author presents some very convincing arguments, that the acquisition of language is an instinct that has evolved over many generations, through natural selection. Steven Pinker is right on the money, when it comes to his analysis of evolution. Every chapter is compelling, an Previously, I had read Steven Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought", which is also an excellent book. I enjoyed that book, so I next read this one--and I'm glad I did. "The Language Instinct" is an absolutely fascinating book! The author presents some very convincing arguments, that the acquisition of language is an instinct that has evolved over many generations, through natural selection. Steven Pinker is right on the money, when it comes to his analysis of evolution. Every chapter is compelling, and each chapter investigates language from a different perspective. In both this book, and in "The Stuff of Thought", Pinker investigates why so many seemingly irregular word usages are not irregular at all. Often we instinctively use words and phrases that seem illogical, just because "it sounds right." Pinker shows the logic underlying the usage--and each time, I just have to say, "oh-my-gosh--of course!"

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy

    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 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.”

  9. 5 out of 5

    Ana

    A highly interesting book about how language came about in the human mind. It gets quite technical at times, but that's an added bonus for anyone who is truly interested in the subject. A highly interesting book about how language came about in the human mind. It gets quite technical at times, but that's an added bonus for anyone who is truly interested in the subject.

  10. 5 out of 5

    David

    Interesting for its discussion of language and language acquisition. But: too many people take Pinker's word as gospel, when in fact his theories are quite controversial. This book also bears a lot of responsibility for the rise of pop EvPsych. Evolutionary psychology is a field that has a few worthwhile observations mixed with an awful lot of BS used to justify all sorts of learned behavior. So, read this book with a very large grain of salt. Interesting for its discussion of language and language acquisition. But: too many people take Pinker's word as gospel, when in fact his theories are quite controversial. This book also bears a lot of responsibility for the rise of pop EvPsych. Evolutionary psychology is a field that has a few worthwhile observations mixed with an awful lot of BS used to justify all sorts of learned behavior. So, read this book with a very large grain of salt.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Koen Crolla

    Pinker is as much of a twit as his hair suggests: The Language Instinct is a miserable pile of unsupported and unsupportable conclusions, straw man attacks, hypocrisy leap-frogging into doublethink, shoddy reasoning, knee-jerk contrarianism, indeliberate obtusity, and gut-feeling argumentation. Pinker tries to synthesize the ideas of people smarter than he is (Chomsky, mostly), and many of these are perfectly fine the way they were originally formulated; they no longer are after Pinker is throug Pinker is as much of a twit as his hair suggests: The Language Instinct is a miserable pile of unsupported and unsupportable conclusions, straw man attacks, hypocrisy leap-frogging into doublethink, shoddy reasoning, knee-jerk contrarianism, indeliberate obtusity, and gut-feeling argumentation. Pinker tries to synthesize the ideas of people smarter than he is (Chomsky, mostly), and many of these are perfectly fine the way they were originally formulated; they no longer are after Pinker is through defending them, because he understands neither the ideas nor any arguments in their favour. As an example, do you remember the argument Dawkins once made, possibly in The Blind Watchmaker, about how very small changes can accumulate and turn into very significant results in a relatively small amount of time? He used a hypothetical population of mice that grew in average size by one percent every generation, and showed that within a few thousand generations — a mere couple of millennia! — those mice would be the size of elephants. Pinker tries to use this same story to show that small *selection pressures* can have significant results quickly: > ``Imagine a mouse that was subject to a miniscule selection pressure for increased size—say, one percent reproductive advantage for offspring that were one percent bigger. Some arithmetic shows that the mouse's descendants would evolve to the size of an elephant in a few thousand generations, an evolutionary eyeblink.'' Which is obviously fractally incoherent, as he would have realised if he'd understood Dawkins's argument instead of just trying to repeat it to try to get a good review by him for the back cover (which he got), or even just tried to do said arithmetic. The sad part is that what he set out to argue is actually true; his bungled argument just undermined it. This is par for the course (there are more egregious examples, but this one stuck because it's Dawkins), and Pinker repeatedly fucks over his main thesis — that language is instinctive, which was as uncontroversial in 1994, when the book was written, as it is now — in the same way. Worse than that, though, he then tries to pretend that arguments in favour of this thesis mean that language is *nothing but* instinctive and, incidentally, uniquely human, and that ``therefore'' everything from linguistic prescriptivism to animal language to Sapir-Whorf to being interested in etymology is completely and utterly wrong-headed and obviously moronic, which he tries to back up by attacking caricatures of these things or, not infrequently, the character of the people involved. Anyway, other people have apparently done thorough jobs of taking apart The Language Instict, so I won't waste any more time on it. Not everything he says is wrong (stopped clocks and all that), and it's a lot like Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind in that some of the digressions are interesting enough, but the signal-to-noise ratio is so pathetically low that the book as a whole isn't worth your time. Read Chomsky instead; Pinker would claim he's saying the same things he is anyway, which demonstrates just how confused he is. Maybe it's just because TLI is his first book. Elsewhere in my to-read stack is his most recent one, The Stuff of Thought; we'll see how it compares. I'm not holding my breath. Ultimately, the problem isn't that he was new to writing, because he wasn't; it's that he's a psychologist, and not a real scientist.

  12. 5 out of 5

    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 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.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sebastian

    A good portion of this book can be summed up in the relatively simple graph that was making the rounds on Twitter a while back: https://twitter.com/robdrummond/statu.... However, Pinker is a good enough writer that reading about the issue in book-length format rarely feels boring, as he throws about a plethora of interesting examples and anecdotes to illustrate the point. What’s more, the book skips around quite a bit, covering just about every aspect of general linguistics I could think of that A good portion of this book can be summed up in the relatively simple graph that was making the rounds on Twitter a while back: https://twitter.com/robdrummond/statu.... However, Pinker is a good enough writer that reading about the issue in book-length format rarely feels boring, as he throws about a plethora of interesting examples and anecdotes to illustrate the point. What’s more, the book skips around quite a bit, covering just about every aspect of general linguistics I could think of that actually interests me – how language works, how it was created, how the brain produces it, how various internal and external processes shape it, etc. I do have objections, of course, one of them being that for a book that very loudly proclaims to be about language in general, it retains a strong English-leaning slant – there is quite some talk, for instance, about how English spelling is an optimal system of representing speech vocalizations on paper, which comes off as a really weird claim to someone reared in a writing system with a phonetic alphabet/script (Serbian Cyrillic, and to an extent, Serbo-Croatian Latin). The segment on Chomsky and the structure of deep grammar/mentalese also suffers quite a bit in audiobook format. The narrator really makes an effort, but some of the structures described, while probably quite clear at a mere glance at a hand-drawn diagram, become an impenetrable forest of P(NP)VPs when read out loud. On the other hand, the majority of the objections I saw here, glancing through the comments, boil down to either “boo-hoo, I disagree with his views, therefore this is a bad book” or “Pinker’s presentation is simplistic cherry-picking of straw-man arguments”. Well, one may disagree with what he’s saying, but Pinker does mention very specific sources and research his arguments lean on, and my humble academic experience with some of the opposition to his views leaves me inclined towards aligning with the theories presented herein. As for simplistic? Probably, but this is not a university textbook, so I don’t see the problem. He does what he meant to do, present an overall state of play in linguistics at the time of writing for a more-or-less lay audience. My edition also has a neat addendum at the end, where he looks back after more than a decade has passed, and discusses some of the changes and reactions to the contents of the book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Nicky

    When it comes to something I don't know much about, I'm pretty easily swayed by other people's arguments. Like, I finished this book feeling it was pretty intelligent and interesting, and then I read some criticisms and reviews and heck, I don't know what to think. Still, I did find it interesting, and while the book looks deceptively slim for how long it took me to get through it, Pinker expresses his arguments clearly, with examples and sourcing, etc. His basic argument is that we're hardwired When it comes to something I don't know much about, I'm pretty easily swayed by other people's arguments. Like, I finished this book feeling it was pretty intelligent and interesting, and then I read some criticisms and reviews and heck, I don't know what to think. Still, I did find it interesting, and while the book looks deceptively slim for how long it took me to get through it, Pinker expresses his arguments clearly, with examples and sourcing, etc. His basic argument is that we're hardwired for language. That, as with our sight, hearing, etc, we have a 'language sense'; if properly stimulated during the critical period, our brains quickly figure out how to parse language (at least, the language spoken around us when we are at that age, even if that language is sign language). We don't need to hear every word or possible sentence structure (couldn't possibly) to pick up on the rules of grammar and apply them, when speaking and when listening. This only refers to the critical period; a child will learn grammar instinctively on being exposed to a language, but an adult must learn it by rote, in the same way as you have to learn to process visual input during the critical period for that, or you'll never have the same visual acuity as someone who did. Thus far, I think I'm going along with him. I do have questions of a sort of chicken and the egg nature: which came first, the brain's Universal Grammar module, or language that necessitated it? I'm inclined to think that the structures that we now use to understand language were used for something else earlier in our evolution, and became co-opted into our communications array (so to speak) over time. Our brains formed language, and then the language formed our brains... All in all, I don't know whether Pinker's right, but I found his work convincing. Having read a couple of other books on language, including Guy Deutscher's Through the Language Glass , and applying what I know from those too, I find it hard to disagree with Pinker even where I want to, for example about relativism.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. 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 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 not a cultural artifact. "Ghetto talk" is just as complex as perfect english. Perfect english is a collection of rules that were sold to allow new wealth from the industrial revolution seem classy. Quotes: "Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other's minds." "Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is quantitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently." "In many cases a pidgin can be transmuted into a full complex language in one fell swoop: all it takes is for a group of children to be exposed to the pidgin at the age when they acquire their mother tongue." "People store genes in their gonads and pass them to their children through their genitals; they store grammars in their brains and pass them to their children through their mouths. Gonads and brains are attached to each other in bodies, so when bodies move, genes and grammars move together. That is the only reason that geneticists find any correlation between the two." "The brute mathematical fact is that all things being equal, there is a better chance of being a young person than being an old person. So genes that strengthen young organisms at the expense of old organisms have the odds in their favor and will tend to accumulate over evolutionary timespans, whatever the bodily system, and the result is overall senescence." "Neuroscientists estimate that about thirty thousand genes, the majority of the human genome, are used to build the brain and nervous system." "Outwitting and second-guessing an organism of approximately equal mental abilities with non-overlapping interests, at best, and malevolent intentions, at worst, makes formidable and ever-escalating demands on cognition. And a cognitive arms race clearly could propel a linguistic one. Ina ll cultures, social interactions are mediated by persuasion and argument...evolving humans lived in a world in which language was woven into the intrigues of politics, economics, technology, family, sex, and friendship that played key roles in individual reproductive success." "All behavior is an interaction between nature and nurture, whose contributions are as inseparable as the length and width of a rectangle in determining its area." Beautiful

  16. 5 out of 5

    Eliza

    *Read for school* 2.5/3 stars This was an okay read - very technical at some points, so those parts nearly lulled me to sleep. Honestly, I wouldn't have picked it up had it not been for my linguistics class - but i did learn about how languages formed, so in a way, it was pretty interesting. Nothing remarkable, though. *Read for school* 2.5/3 stars This was an okay read - very technical at some points, so those parts nearly lulled me to sleep. Honestly, I wouldn't have picked it up had it not been for my linguistics class - but i did learn about how languages formed, so in a way, it was pretty interesting. Nothing remarkable, though.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Buckley

    I had always supposed that linguists could not write clearly. Rather like psychiatrists who were mad, sociologists who couldn’t get on with people, and social anthropologists who were permanent outsiders, linguists, I supposed, devoted their adulthood overcoming their childhood difficulties with language. Here, however, I discover my prejudices overturned. Considering the inherent complexity of his topic, Steven Pinker’s book on language is witty, lucid and intelligible. Pinker’s theme is that p I had always supposed that linguists could not write clearly. Rather like psychiatrists who were mad, sociologists who couldn’t get on with people, and social anthropologists who were permanent outsiders, linguists, I supposed, devoted their adulthood overcoming their childhood difficulties with language. Here, however, I discover my prejudices overturned. Considering the inherent complexity of his topic, Steven Pinker’s book on language is witty, lucid and intelligible. Pinker’s theme is that people are born with an inherent capacity – an instinct – that enables them to construct language. In much the same way as they are programmed to learn, at appropriate ages, to walk, to tell jokes and to have sex, so people have an innate ability to learn to speak correctly. Around this central idea – derived from Chomsky’s studies of syntax – Pinker hangs a summary of some of the most important recent ideas in linguistics. The book therefore doubles as a textbook for a first year linguistics student and a good general introduction for a mildly interested beginner (for somebody like me). It is also a polemical book, for Pinker is not afraid to ride hobby horses and proclaim his own vision of the one true linguistics. He delves into the mysteries of Chomskyan deep structure, explaining that the grammar of particular languages are constructed from the inbuilt language-structure that is common to every person and every language. He defies the linguistic relativism associated with the names of Sapir and Whorf. He explains how people and animals think without having a language. He tells the story of deaf children in Nicaragua who were thrown together with older children who knew bits and pieces of sign language from a variety of sources, but who, from these bits and pieces, were able to construct a sign language as coherent as any other. He casts doubt on the supposed ability of monkeys and whales to speak human languages. He explores the biology that explains – or might explain – the instinct for speaking. He opposes those who fight endless wars against the split infinitive, the greengrocer's apostrophe and the final participle, claiming that their own version of English is the only correct one. And he does much more. The book is, in short, informative and intelligent. It is also a lot of fun. I see that a more recent book by Pinker has been nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Having just read this one, I am not at all surprised.

  18. 5 out of 5

    ⵎⵓⵏⵉⵔ

    This book is an excellent introduction into linguistics and language-related scientific fields (such as psycholinguistics, evolutionary linguistics, learning theory, etc), for someone like me who has been fascinated by the subject for a long time, but only had the chance to dabble a toe or two into one sub-area or another. It corrects many popular misconceptions about language and language learning, from the point of view of the author, based on the latest scientific concensus (at the time the bo This book is an excellent introduction into linguistics and language-related scientific fields (such as psycholinguistics, evolutionary linguistics, learning theory, etc), for someone like me who has been fascinated by the subject for a long time, but only had the chance to dabble a toe or two into one sub-area or another. It corrects many popular misconceptions about language and language learning, from the point of view of the author, based on the latest scientific concensus (at the time the book was written in 1994, though there's a section at the end of the 2007 edition with additions and corrections), such as the strong Whorf-Sapir hypothesis (which states that language determines thoughts) which discredits the possibility of the 1984 dystopian scenario with Newspeak (*sigh of relief*), the idea that some non-human members of the great apes could use "language" even remotely close in complexity to human language as claims have continuously been made over the years, or that parents speaking to their young children is essential for the later's ability to acquire language. It also presents Chomsky's hypothesis of Universal Grammar, which is a set of rules thought to be the backbone of all human languages, regardless of their apparent phonetics, vocabulary or grammatical rules, and a mirror image of the brain structures that might have evolved to allow complex language parsing and construction, as well as acquiring the native language during childhood. Considering Steven Pinker's simple and beautiful style, as well as clear and direct explanations (for the most part), I am certainly looking forward to reading the rest of his books.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Mikael Lind

    First of all, I am not a big fan of Steven Pinker. I found How the mind works erroneous on many accounts. That said, The Language Instinct is despite its uncompromising MIT cognitivist stance a fun and interesting read. To me, even the title reveals a general error; i.e. How the Mind Creates Language. The mind does not create language; human beings create language in an inter-subjective way. (Compare: brains do not think (except as metaphorical speech, not suitable for scientific writing) people First of all, I am not a big fan of Steven Pinker. I found How the mind works erroneous on many accounts. That said, The Language Instinct is despite its uncompromising MIT cognitivist stance a fun and interesting read. To me, even the title reveals a general error; i.e. How the Mind Creates Language. The mind does not create language; human beings create language in an inter-subjective way. (Compare: brains do not think (except as metaphorical speech, not suitable for scientific writing) people think.) So be on your guard and do not accept mr. Pinker's arguments without reflecting upon them. This book is full of interesting facts and stories, but I would recommend anyone to pick up a copy of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations after having read Pinker in order to get a glance of the complicated reality outside the cognitivist nimbus cloud.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Alatea

    I usually "go with the feeling" when I review books, so it's really difficult to review non-fiction. But I'll try anyway. The language history was an easy, but satisfying popular-science read. I highly recommend it to everyone who is interested in linguistics or language in general. I usually "go with the feeling" when I review books, so it's really difficult to review non-fiction. But I'll try anyway. The language history was an easy, but satisfying popular-science read. I highly recommend it to everyone who is interested in linguistics or language in general.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ashley Reid

    There were some parts of this that were interesting and worth reading for, but overall it was a waffly and long winded book that I struggled to get through at some boring points.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ana

    I don't know if I would've enjoyed this book half as much had I not listened to the audiobook, but it was a pleasant commute read. I don't know if I would've enjoyed this book half as much had I not listened to the audiobook, but it was a pleasant commute read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    May

    I just finished reading the most challenging non-fiction leisure book I have ever read: Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. It was a close call, but I'm relieved that I powered through. Before I dive into my review, I'd like to clarify that I found it challenging not because my knowledge of linguistics prior to reading this book was terribly basic, but rather because there is so much information packed into The Language Instinct. That is, however, its greatest merit - and the reason why my min I just finished reading the most challenging non-fiction leisure book I have ever read: Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. It was a close call, but I'm relieved that I powered through. Before I dive into my review, I'd like to clarify that I found it challenging not because my knowledge of linguistics prior to reading this book was terribly basic, but rather because there is so much information packed into The Language Instinct. That is, however, its greatest merit - and the reason why my mind was being blown after every chapter. In The Language Instinct, Pinker argues that humans' ability to acquire language is not dependant on education or imitation. Rather, it's instinctual. It's "wired into our brains by evolution." According to Pinker, "evolution did not make a ladder. It made a bush." That is to say, Pinker disagrees with Darwin's theory that we evolved from Monkeys. That's why computers will never be able to learn language the way a child could, and also why apes will never be able to speak English or Learn American Sign Language. Indeed, Pinker's research shows that those who claimed that laboratory apes' gestures resembled sign language were actually overanalyzing what they observed. Of course, there are many Darwinists out there who would shake their heads at such a thought (Pinker, however, is pretty convincing). All it would take, however, is the discovery of an evolved trait for an aesthetic, and not pragmatic, purpose, to defy the theory of natural selection. Anyway - because Pinker is trying to prove that language is an instinct, he begins at the roots of language acquisition. There is a lot of research on children. Such research is especially interesting when Pinker discusses 'creoles,' mother tongues that are developed as a result of several languages meshed together. The possibility of such 'meshing' suggests that an universal grammar underlies all language. The existence of a "universal grammar," however, would not wholly verify that language is an instinct. After all, we have words for 'water' not because our DNA dictates it but because we need to refer to water. Neither is there a 'grammar gene - an American-born Chinese can just as easily learn English as his or her American peers. So, it seems that "complexity in the mind is not caused by learning; learning is caused by complexity in the mind." The Language Instinct is also in many ways a defense of language. Pinker argues that there is no reason to look down upon primitive dialects because primitive cultures have complex language systems and, after all, a language is also a dialect - just one with "an army and a navy." In his chapter on language mavens, a.k.a grammar nazis, Pinker also explains why certain grammatical errors are perhaps even preferable. For example, language mavens will argue that "Who did you see" should be "Whom did you see" or at least "Which person did you see" according to the rules of grammar. Yet can you imagine, Pinker asks, saying something like "Whom did you sound like?" Moreover, the final option ("which person") restricts the 'who' from being an animal or multiple people. The Language Instinct is an enlightening read that leaves reader with a deeper understanding, and growing curiosity, of language. Pinker writes in a clear and sometimes almost conversational way that renders a PhD-worthy subject into one that general audiences can grasp. Of course, certain sections are utterly perplexing and almost impossible to retain. Above all, however, Pinker convincingly presents the thesis that language - contrary to what many believe - is instinctual. As he says, "this is news." If language is innate, much more could be; such a revelation would revolutionize the way we consider education, study the human brain and even assess the validity of Darwin's theory of evolution!! Factoids: - We are told that a noun is the most important part of a sentence because it is the doer; however, a noun cannot operate without verb. So, the verb is the boss of a sentence - Mentalese: the hypothetical "language of thought, or representation of concepts and propositions in the brain in which ideas, including the meanings of words and sentences, are couched. - Listeme: an element of language that must be memorized because its sound or meaning does not conform to some general rule. All word roots, irregular forms and idioms are listemes. - When your tongue is high and at front of your mouth, you'll produce high-frequency sounds (e.g. e in teeny); when your tongue is low and at the back of your mouth, you'll produce low-frequency sounds (e.g. a in large). Now, this is especially fascinating when we consider words such as frobbing, twiddling and tweaking. To frob is to move a dial or switch by drastically adjusting its range; to twiddle is to adjust the switch by a smaller margin; to tweak is to adjust the switch by only a litte. Interestingly, it's always the word with the high front vowel that goes first in expressions such as ping-pong and chit-chat. Hip-hop, flip-flop, the list goes on... - English is an isolating language, meaning that you must say "to go" to indicate the act of going somewhere - two units are used to express one definition. The french aller, however, does the deed in one word.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Krish

    Main takeaways: - Language is an innate skill possessed by humans and not acquired artificially through teaching like writing, programming, etc. - Although innate, the skill can be automatically learnt only during the critical period of up to 6 years of age. Beyond this age, it has to be artificially acquired like a second language. - Just one generation of children brought up by adults who speak a "pidgin" (a language lacking grammar and consisting of mere words from a number of different language Main takeaways: - Language is an innate skill possessed by humans and not acquired artificially through teaching like writing, programming, etc. - Although innate, the skill can be automatically learnt only during the critical period of up to 6 years of age. Beyond this age, it has to be artificially acquired like a second language. - Just one generation of children brought up by adults who speak a "pidgin" (a language lacking grammar and consisting of mere words from a number of different languages) is enough to create a "creole" (a grammatically rich language which borrows the pidgin vocabulary) - All languages share a Universal Grammar (which is the part of language learning that's probably innate in humans). Each language follows the super-rules of this grammar but has its own values for the variable parameters depending on various cultural and environmental factors. - Rules of grammar are only useful as long as they help resolve ambiguity and enable effective communication among humans. Rules like "don't end a sentence with a preposition" and "use whom instead of who" are bookishly enforced and serve no practical purpose. - "English spelling could be better than it is. But it is already much better than people think it is. That is because writing systems do not aim to represent the actual sounds of talking, which we do not hear, but the abstract units of language underlying them, which we do hear."

  25. 4 out of 5

    Cynda

    I so so so wanted to like this book. I took one linguistics class and did a number of rhetoric classes so I thought that I would find this book accessible. I did not. I recognize the Chomsky language trees. I did see why the trees were so important to discuss top and bottom sentences and to prove how all humans are hardwired for language so that babies simply learn if their family speaks top or bottom sentences and SVO or some other construction. Yet all human languaget is obviously human. I get I so so so wanted to like this book. I took one linguistics class and did a number of rhetoric classes so I thought that I would find this book accessible. I did not. I recognize the Chomsky language trees. I did see why the trees were so important to discuss top and bottom sentences and to prove how all humans are hardwired for language so that babies simply learn if their family speaks top or bottom sentences and SVO or some other construction. Yet all human languaget is obviously human. I get that. I wonder why Pinker wrote such a detailed argument, so detailed that my attention derailed, and I cannot read one more page of this book. So why 3 stars when I seem to hate this book? I do not hate the book. I am frustrated by the details. I plan to retern to this book at a later date and to read one chapter at a time and then put the book away for a month and then repeat the process until I complete the book. I am simply on information overload. I will re-read this book and fully intend to rate it 4 or 5 stars.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Zsa Zsa

    it took me a while to read it cause it got too scientific at times, but Pinker has tried to explain this as simple as he can and his humor makes it a good read. i recommend this to language lovers.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Elena

    I really-really like my readings about languages (English and my native Russian), never bored with them, and this particular book was a treat. I’ll read other books of Steven Pinker for sure.

  28. 5 out of 5

    E

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Pinker is entertaining as he explains the basic tenets of language development for laypeople or beginning students of linguistics. He argues that humans do indeed have an instinct for language - for grammar, to be specific - unparalleled in other species, as one-of-a-kind as the elephant's trunk. This instinct driven by nature prevails over environmental or nuturing factors, though one can't take that argument too literally. Obviously, whether a baby speaks English or Zulu is determined by the f Pinker is entertaining as he explains the basic tenets of language development for laypeople or beginning students of linguistics. He argues that humans do indeed have an instinct for language - for grammar, to be specific - unparalleled in other species, as one-of-a-kind as the elephant's trunk. This instinct driven by nature prevails over environmental or nuturing factors, though one can't take that argument too literally. Obviously, whether a baby speaks English or Zulu is determined by the family and community, but many so-called "mistakes" children make in grammar are proof of the brain's perseverance in calculating sentences correctly. My main disagreement with Pinker's argument relates to the beloved pasttime of descriptive linguists to bash "the language mavens" - i.e., teachers and writers who criticize certain styles of speech and writing. He is right that language is man-made; it is always changing and always will change. Every big change creates a dialect and no dialect is "wrong" or "right." Linguists can certainly contribute to socio-political progress in proving that Southern dialect, Ebonics, and the Queen's English are all grammatically consistent and equally rife with potential for creative expression. However, to argue that all languages change and therefore no one should care one way or another what is spoken where or when is dangerously libertine, for it ignores the significance of social subtlety and the value of skilled oratory and writing. If one uses a youth dialect variant at a job interview or a conference with the word "like" inserted before every adjective, verb, and noun, "it will kill the pathos," as a professor of mine once said. Likewise, if one uses the Queen's English at a rave, you will be kindly asked to remove the pole from thine ass, and rightly so. Both linguists and writers should recognize that no language is ultimately superior to the other, but that social constructs do dictate what sort of language will be received well in what sort of context and to dismiss these rules is indeed to demonstrate social and aesthetic ignorance and/or arrogance. (See EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES by Lynne Truss for more on that.) Some professors have dismissed Pinker's book as pop science, whereas others are of course excited about his giving the subject popular appeal. I've taken courses on linguistics, but I'm not a linguist, so I found it to be neither patronizing nor elite.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Cassandra Kay Silva

    Pinker is a fabulous author and has an interesting story to tell with this one. His premise is that much of what we consider to be learned in our early years as children,through practice with language, is actually pre hardwired in our brains as in an almost universal understanding of syntax that can get laid out in a number of different languages in a number of different ways. That the ways humans have developed to think of the world is inherent in our understanding of this language. I don't kno Pinker is a fabulous author and has an interesting story to tell with this one. His premise is that much of what we consider to be learned in our early years as children,through practice with language, is actually pre hardwired in our brains as in an almost universal understanding of syntax that can get laid out in a number of different languages in a number of different ways. That the ways humans have developed to think of the world is inherent in our understanding of this language. I don't know if he made enough "hard" or solid arguments for me to buy into this completely. I don't know if he answered fully my objections to his argument. One being that could humans not have been able to pick up on patterns locally in their environment instead of this having to be factored in? The only really good counterargument to this would have been his description of deaf children and their own "invented" signs when not taught this initially. I would have like to have heard more of this but was still very impressed overall with the author and what he was trying to accomplish with this work and would definitely pick up another book of his.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Emanuela

    I have barely started it but I'm loving it already. I'll be back with a much more enriched review once I've finished it. Now that I have finished it (about two weeks ago) I can finally write something more about it. To begin with, I must confess I have had a few troubles finishing this book, but simply because I've fallen so in love with it that it really cost me a lot to end it. The Language Instinct has definitely made it to the top three list of my all time favorite books. Written in an informa I have barely started it but I'm loving it already. I'll be back with a much more enriched review once I've finished it. Now that I have finished it (about two weeks ago) I can finally write something more about it. To begin with, I must confess I have had a few troubles finishing this book, but simply because I've fallen so in love with it that it really cost me a lot to end it. The Language Instinct has definitely made it to the top three list of my all time favorite books. Written in an informative yet accessible way, every chapter both a new discovery, a challenge and a new adventure, The Language Instinct is the equivalent of an erudite yet enjoyable travel companion who entertains rather than lectures the reader with its knowledge. And just like the end of a pleasant journey, it is deeply sad to finally reach the last page. At the same time, just like every formative experience in life, when you finally reach the end cover, you walk away from The Language Instinct enriched in mind and spirit.

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