The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

3.9 17
by Steven Pinker

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Everyone has questions about language. Some are from everyday experience: Why do immigrants struggle with a new language, only to have their fluent children ridicule their grammatical errors? Why can't computers converse with us? Why is the hockey team in Toronto called the Maple Leafs, not the Maple Leaves? Some are from popular science: Have scientists really…  See more details below


Everyone has questions about language. Some are from everyday experience: Why do immigrants struggle with a new language, only to have their fluent children ridicule their grammatical errors? Why can't computers converse with us? Why is the hockey team in Toronto called the Maple Leafs, not the Maple Leaves? Some are from popular science: Have scientists really reconstructed the first language spoken on earth? Are there genes for grammar? Can chimpanzees learn sign language? And some are from our deepest ponderings about the human condition: Does our language control our thoughts? How could language have evolved? Is language deteriorating? Today laypeople can chitchat about black holes and dinosaur extinictions, but their curiosity about their own speech has been left unsatisfied - until now. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading scientists of language and the 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, how it evolved. But The Language Instinct is no encyclopedia. With wit, erudition, and deft use of everyday examples of humor and wordplay, Pinker weaves our vast knowledge of language into a compelling theory: that language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution like web spinning in spiders or sonar in bats. The theory not only challenges conventional wisdom about language itself (especially from the self-appointed "experts" who claim to be safe-guarding the language hut who understand it less well than a typical teenager). It is part of a whole new vision of the human mind: not a general-purpose computer, but a collection of instincts adapted to solving evolutionarily significant problems - the mind as a Swiss Army knife. Entertaining, insightful, provocative, The Language Instinct will change the way you talk about talking and think about thinking.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Books of the Century
...[A] well-written, witty book that makes even the most difficult material accessible to average readers.
Atlantic Monthly
An exciting book, certain to produce argument.
New Scientist
Extremely important.
New York Times Book Review
A brilliant, witty, and altogether satisfying book.
Boston Globe Book Review
An excellent book full of wit and wisdom and sound judgement.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A three-year-old toddler is ``a grammatical genius''--master of most constructions, obeying adult rules of language. To Pinker, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psycholinguist, the explanation for this miracle is that language is an instinct, an evolutionary adaptation that is partly ``hard-wired'' into the brain and partly learned. In this exciting synthesis--an entertaining, totally accessible study that will regale language lovers and challenge professionals in many disciplines--Pinker builds a bridge between ``innatists'' like MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who hold that infants are biologically programmed for language, and ``social interactionists'' who contend that they acquire it largely from the environment. If Pinker is right, the origins of language go much further back than 30,000 years ago (the date most commonly given in textbooks)--perhaps to Homo habilis , who lived 2.5 million years ago, or even eons earlier. Peppered with mind-stretching language exercises, the narrative first unravels how babies learn to talk and how people make sense of speech. Professor and co-director of MIT's Center for Cognitive Science, Pinker demolishes linguistic determinism, which holds that differences among languages cause marked differences in the thoughts of their speakers. He then follows neurolinguists in their quest for language centers in the brain and for genes that might help build brain circuits controlling grammar and speech. Pinker also argues that claims for chimpanzees' acquisition of language (via symbols or American Sign Language) are vastly exaggerated and rest on skimpy data. Finally, he takes delightful swipes at ``language mavens'' like William Safire and Richard Lederer, accusing them of rigidity and of grossly underestimating the average person's language skills. Pinker's book is a beautiful hymn to the infinite creative potential of language. Newbridge Book Clubs main selection; BOMC and QPB alternates. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Following fast on the heels of Joel Davis's Mother Tongue ( LJ 12/93) is another provocative and skillfully written book by an MIT professor who specializes in the language development of children. While Pinker covers some of the same ground as did Davis, he argues that an ``innate grammatical machinery of the brain'' exists, which allows children to ``reinvent'' language on their own. Basing his ideas on Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar theory, Pinker describes language as a ``discrete combinatorial system'' that might easily have evolved via natural selection. Pinker steps on a few toes (language mavens beware!), but his work, while controversial, is well argued, challenging, often humorous, and always fascinating. Most public and academic libraries will want to add this title to their collections.-- Laurie Bartolini, Lincoln Lib., Springfield, Ill.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

An Instinct to Acquire an Art

As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other's brains with exquisite precision. I am not referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science; even in the depictions of believers these are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. That ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other's minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is. So let me remind you with some simple demonstrations, Asking you only to surrender your imagination to my words for a few moments, I can cause you to think some very specific thoughts:

When a male octopus spots a female, his normally grayish body suddenly becomes striped. He swims above the female and begins caressing her with seven of his arms. If she allows this, he will quickly reach toward her and slip his eighth arm into her breathing tube. A series of sperm packets moves slowly through a groove in his arm, finally to slip into the mantle cavity of the female.

Cherries jubilee on a white suit? Wine on an altar cloth? Apply club soda immediately. It works beautifully to remove the stains from fabrics.

When Dixie opens the door to Tad, she is stunned, because she thought he was dead. She slams it in his face and then tries to escape. However, when Tad says, "I love you," she letshim in. Tad comforts her, and they become passionate, When Brian interrupts, Dixie tells a stunned Tad that she and Brian were married earlier that day. With much difficulty, Dixie informs Brian that things are nowhere near finished between her and Tad. Then she spills the news that Jamie is Tad's son. "My what?" says a shocked Tad.

Think about what these words have done. I did not simply remind you of octopuses; in the unlikely event that you ever see one develop stripes, you now know what will happen next. Perhaps the next time you are in a supermarket you will look for club soda, one out of the tens of thousands of items available, and then not touch it until months later when a particular substance and a particular object accidentally come together. You now share with millions of other people the secrets of protagonists in a world that is the product of some stranger's imagination, the daytime drama All My Children. True, my demonstrations depended on our ability to read and write, and this makes our communication even more impressive by bridging gaps of time, space, and acquaintanceship. But writing is clearly an optional accessory; the real engine of verbal communication is the spoken language we acquired as children.

In any natural history of the human species, language would stand out as the preeminent trait. To be sure, a solitary human is an impressive problem-solver and engineer. But a race of Robinson Crusoes would not give an extraterrestrial observer all that much to remark on. What is truly arresting about our kind is better captured in the story of the Tower of Babel, in which humanity, speaking a single language, came so close to reaching heaven that God himself felt threatened. A common language connects the members of a community into an information-sharing network with formidable collective powers. Anyone can benefit from the strokes of genius, lucky accidents, and trial-and-error wisdom accumulated by anyone else, present or past. And people can work in teams, their efforts coordinated by negotiated agreements. As a result, Homo sapiens is a species, like blue-green algae and earthworms, that has wrought far-reaching changes on the planet. Archeologists have discovered the bones of ten thousand wild horses at the bottom of a cliff in France, the remains of herds stampeded over the clifftop by groups of paleolithic hunters seventeen thousand years ago. These fossils of ancient cooperation and shared ingenuity may shed light on why saber-tooth tigers, mastodons, giant woolly rhinoceroses, and dozens of other large mammals went extinct around the time that modern humans arrived in their habitats. Our ancestors, apparently, killed them off.

Language is so tightly woven into human experience that it is scarcely possible to imagine life without it, Chances are that if you find two or more people together anywhere on earth, they will soon be exchanging words. When there is no one to talk with, people talk to themselves, to their dogs, even to their plants. In our social relations, the race is not to the swift but to the verbal — the spellbinding orator, the silver-tongued seducer, the persuasive child who wins the battle of wills against a brawnier parent. Aphasia, the loss of language following brain injury, is devastating, and in severe cases family members may feel that the whole person is lost forever.

This book is about human language. Unlike most books with "language" in the title, it will not chide you about proper usage, trace the origins of idioms and slang, or divert you with palindromes, anagrams, eponyms, or those precious names for groups of animals like "exaltation of larks." For I will be writing not about the English language or any other language, but about something much more basic: the instinct to learn, speak, and understand language. For the first time in history, there is something to write about it. Some thirty-five years ago a new science was born. Now called "cognitive science," it combines tools from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neurobiology to explain the workings of human intelligence. The science of language, in particular, has seen spectacular advances in the years since. There are many phenomena of language that we are coming to understand nearly as well as we understand how a camera works or what the spleen is for. I hope to communicate these exciting discoveries, some of them as elegant as anything in modern science, but I have another agenda as well.

The recent illumination of linguistic abilities has revolutionary implications for our understanding of language and its role in human affairs, and for our view of humanity itself. Most educated people already have opinions about language. They know that it is man's most important cultural invention, the quintessential example of his capacity to use symbols, and a biologically unprecedented event irrevocably separating him from other animals. They know that language pervades thought, with different languages causing their speakers...

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What People are saying about this

Noam Chomsky
"An extremely valuable book, very informative, and very well written."
Leila Gleitman
"Somebody finally got it right. Pinker's thoroughly modern, totally engaging book introduces lay readers to the science of language in ways that are irreverant and hilarious while coherent and factually sound."

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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There are some issues with Pinker's presentation. There's also been a lot of work in the meantime from when this book was first published. In any case, for the layman it is a good introduction to linguistic thought.
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Bumpa More than 1 year ago
This is a rambling, pedantic, diatribe laced with opinion, soft science, and psychobabble. Many of the problems Pinker deals with are no more than paper tigers that are easily torn down by logic, application of a few rules of English, and appropriate use of punctuation. Pinker strangely has no use for either. He wonders why Americans have so much difficulty with their language; then, he spends an entire chapter ranting against the teaching of rules of language. Well, duh! Had Pinker had a circa 1949 class in diagramming sentences, he may have made a career change.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I would like to work also at the Steve project... and understanding the way we comprehend the world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Credete di sapere cosa troverete dentro a un libro che tratta del linguaggio? Sbagliato. Qualunque cosa abbiate pensato. Pinker riporta la trattazione del linguaggio a quello che il linguaggio è nella realtà, mostrando che non ci vuole più competenza linguistica per sostenere una dissertazione accademica rispetto a quella che serve per imprecare contro il vicino di casa fracassone. E lo fa in una maniera molto convincente. Parlare è ciò che il nostro cervello non può non farci fare, esattamente come il cervello di un ragno non può che fargli costruire ragnatele. Il linguaggio è qualcosa di innato, ma non (solo) perchè tutti lo parlano, bensì perchè tutti, quando parlano, organizzano le loro parole secondo una struttura sintattica innata ed economica dal punto di vista genetico. I bambini ce l¿hanno quando nascono, e imparano a usarla produttivamente NONOSTANTE i nostri tentativi di ¿insegnargli¿ a parlare. E così capiamo perchè i titoli scandalistici del tipo ¿Bambino nato parlante descrive il paradiso¿ non siano così campati per aria. L¿istruzione è un¿ottima cosa, ma come ci ricorda Pinker citando Wilde, ¿bisognerebbe ogni tanto ricordarsi che nulla che valga la pena di essere appreso può essere insegnato¿. Quello che è eccezionale nei bambini non è che ¿imparano¿ il linguaggio, bensì che ogni volta ¿lo reinventano¿, ma mai in maniera sgrammaticata. Ma Pinker non si ferma a Chomsky. Il linguaggio, checchè ne possa dire Chomsky, è un prodotto del lavorio congiunto di evoluzione e selezione naturale, si è accresciuto a poco a poco (ma questo non ha nulla a che fare con scimmie parlanti o gesticolanti). Inoltre, un apparato unico ed estremamente specializzato con aree cerebrali dedicate, come è il linguaggio, non è un¿eccezione in natura: la proboscide dell¿elefante ne è un altro esempio. Perchè Pinker ha scritto questo libro? Ce lo dice lui stesso: perchè non ha mai trovato qualcuno che non fosse interessato al linguaggio. Ma anche perchè, così come Fodor, odia il relativismo, che vorrebbe farci credere che quando nasciamo siamo una tabula rasa perfettamente liscia, e che non impariamo a usare la proboscide (invece del linguaggio) non tanto perchè il caso vuole che non ce la ritroviamo addosso, bensì soprattutto perchè ci ritroviamo in mezzo a persone che si da il caso che parlino. Nonostante tutti noi in fondo sentiamo che la vera ragione sta nel fatto che tutti gli uomini hanno la stessa mente.