The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

by Steven Pinker


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061336461
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/04/2007
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 89,674
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.92(d)

About the Author

One of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World Today," Steven Pinker is the author of seven books, including How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate—both Pulitzer Prize finalists and winners of the William James Book Award. He is an award-winning researcher and teacher, and a frequent contributor to Time and the New York Times.


Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

September 18, 1954

Place of Birth:

Montreal, Canada


B.A., McGill University, 1976; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1979

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...

Table of Contents

1. An Instinct to Acquire an Art
2. Chatterboxes
3. Mentalese
4. How Language Works
5. Words, Words, Words
6. The Sounds of Silence
7. Talking Heads
8. The Tower of Babel
9. Baby Born Talking-Describes Heaven
10. Language Organs and Grammar Genes
11. The Big Bang
12. The Language Mavens
13. Mind Design

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."

Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Language is at the center of human existence. The activities that fill our days-politics and romance, business and education, entertainment and warfare-require the uniquely human ability to use and understand language. We all have questions about the nature of this ability. How is language mastered and used? Can animals learn it? What about computers? Are some languages better than others? How does the language we learn affect how we think?

 In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker reviews scientific research showing that language is an "instinct," wired into the human brain through the process of biological evolution. Some striking things follow from this.

  • Language emerges in the young child as the result of the growth of the brain, and its intricate structure is largely encoded in the genes. No instruction or training is required for children to develop a full-blown language-it will appear spontaneously even in the most extreme circumstances.

  • Just as with the communication systems of other species-such as bee dance and birdsong-the human capacity for language has its own special properties. Contrary to popular belief, attempts to teach sign language to animals such as chimpanzees have not succeeded.

  • All human languages, signed or spoken, are variants in the same universal system. This system is so complex that there is no existing computer that uses language as well as a three-year-old child. Complaints that some groups of people possess an inferior form of language are based on prejudice, ignorance of grammar, or both.

  • People who never learn language are still capable of rich and elaborate reasoning, and there isno evidence that speakers of different languages think about the world in different ways. In general, language is separate-in the genes and in the brain-from other instincts that make up the human mind.
  • Topics for Discussion

     1. All languages are "discrete combinatorial systems," which means they contain rules that combine basic symbols (as words) into an infinite number of different larger structures (such as sentences). Other such systems are rare, but they do exist. The genetic code of DNA-which serves as the basis for life on earth-is built in a similar way, allowing for the creation of a potential infinity of novel life forms.

    Some other discrete combinatorial systems that humans possess are involved in aesthetic activities like music and dance. What is the relationship between the language instinct and these other aspects of the human mind? Is it likely that such systems emerged out of language, either through biological evolution or cultural development? Or could they have evolved independently? What sort of evidence would bear on this issue? (Chapters 3, 4, and 11)

    2. The structures of speech and sign are constrained by biological mechanisms; they are not cultural innovations. Because of this, the complaint that people nowadays don't use English properly is quite bizarre. It would be like saying that birdsong has been gradually corrupted over the last several hundred years. But writing is a different story. Although it is plainly based on existing languages such as English, it is a cultural invention. Not all societies have it, and children require careful instruction in order to learn it. What is the proper role of "language mavens" in determining rules and standards of writing? How can scientific research on sentence comprehension and composition tell us how to improve the teaching of writing skills? (Chapters 7 and 12)

    3. We are entranced by the idea of animals learning language, and popular movies and television shows are are populated with singing chimps, talking dolphins, and even the occasional loquacious horse. Pinker argues that from the standpoint of biology, attempting to teach one species the communicative system of another makes little sense. Trying to teach a human baby to sing like a bird or chatter like a monkey isn't likely to succeed, and would not tell us very much if it did.

    Why are we so fascinated by the idea of talking animals? What is at stake-scientifically or socially-in the debate over the capacities of apes and other animals? How are these attempts to teach human language to non humans different from the study of the communications systems that animals use spontaneously in the wild? (Chapter 10 and 11)

    4. Debates over the nature of the human mind have always been intimately related to our political, social, and religious views. Defenders of the claim that the mind is infinitely malleable, free from biological constraints, view this as an optimistic, liberal doctrine, while more biological perspectives - especially those informed by evolutionary theory - are seen by many as tainted by racism and sexism.

    On the other hand, scholars such as the linguist Noam Chomsky have argued that the moral superiority of the empiricist view of the mind is far from clear. Historically, the notion that humans can be "shaped" in any manner that an authority chooses has been the premise behind many brutal and repressive activities. As Pinker puts it, a blank slate is a dictator's dream. Furthermore, a theory of the mind informed by evolutionary theory is actually inconsistent with the notion that there exist profound cognitive differences between human groups.

    Should these ethical and political considerations be taken into account as we develop theories of the mind? How have they affected our way of thinking about these issues in the past? In particular, what motivations might have led people to the view that languages are cultural inventions that vary without limit or, alternatively, to believe that language is a species-specific biological instinct? (Chapters 1 and 13)

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    The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
    ElectricRay on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    Steven Pinker lost me as a buyer of his thesis with the very second sentence of his book: "For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in other's brains with exquisite precision". It you take that for granted, Pinker's book will seem compelling and not especially controversial. Steven Pinker clearly takes it for granted, perhaps because he can't conceive of how we could possibly communicate effectively and coherently if it were not true. Consider the following, which I think perfectly encapsulates the world view Pinker can't conceive of, by Ogden Nash: Caught in a mesh of living veins, In cell of padded bone, He loneliest is when he pretends That he is not alone. We'd free the incarcerate race of man That such a doom endures Could only you unlock my skull, Or I creep into yours. To my way of thinking, it is the very fact that we *can't* "shape events in other's brains with exquisite precision" - or with any reliable certainty at all, that describes the human condition. The frisson created by precisely that ambiguity underpins all communication; it is the source of irony, tragedy, comedy, invention and imagination. Any theory of language which denies that fundamental contingency of human communication (as this one does) is going to have to prove it, and displacing that onus is a heavy task indeed. Pinker's psycho-linguistics makes precisely that denial, by holding that all human communication - every language - shares an inate, evolutionary programmed Universal Grammar, precisely because Pinker can't conceive how else human communication could be possible. I'm no academic, and certainly I have no background in linguistics. Given that this theory - which is from the same tradition as Noam Chomsky's - has been the ascendancy amongst academic linguistics for the best part of the last thirty years, Steven Pinker being one of the leading "normal scientists" within the paradigm (if I should be so bold as to use that word), and that The Language Instinct is considered fairly widely to be his magnum opus, I was expecting to have my naive relativistic assumptions carefully and systematically dissected, then annihilated, one by one. So imagine my surprise to find that in the place of carefully drawn arguments and compelling statistical data, one finds a tissue of anecdotal arguments carefully selected to fit the theory, arguments from authority ("Chomsky is one of the ten most cited writers in all of the humanities"), dubious suppositions in place of statistical data (the "it is difficult to imagine the following grammatical construction being used" sort of thing), begged questions, non sequiturs, and Roger Penrose-style irrelevant scientific waffle - especially as regards evolution - and a decided absence of any consideration of competing theories of linguistics - and straw men versions of those which do rate a mentioned. In short, Steven Pinker employs just about every illegitimate arguing technique in the book. His theory completely fails to account for metaphor (metaphor is barely mentioned in the book), nor the incremental development of language, the evolution of different languages with different grammars and vocabularies. At times Pinker is forced to argue that the grammar of our language is sometimes different from the words we actually speak and write, containing unspoken "inaudible symbols" representing a word or phrase which has been moved elsewhere in the sentence, so the sentence "The car was put in the garage", according to Pinker's Universal Grammar should technically be rendered as: "was put the car in the garage", and the construction we use can only be explained by movement of "The car" and the insertion in its place of an inaudible "trace": "[The car] was put [trace] in the garage". Now, again I am no technical linguist, but this has all the hallmarks of pure bull manure to me. Finally, Pinker is at pains to point out that Universal Grammar is only ever applicable to oral language:
    PrintAvenger on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    I enjoyed the way that Pinker is able to make difficult and often dry subject matter appealing to a wider audience, but I think at times he went a bit far with the pop-culture references and it started to annoy me.
    co_coyote on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    This is a book I gave to my oldest son one Christmas when he was in lovewith language and it looked like he was heading down the path to becoming alinguist. He went back to school before I could steal the book off his bookshelfto read it, so when I found it on his bookshelf in Seattle I was overjoyed. I'vewanted to read this book for a long time. It was worth the wait. Pinker is anexcellent science writer and he makes the (often difficult) material as easy tounderstand as anyone could. An excellent book.
    cmbohn on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    I had a hard time with this book. When I started it, I was excited because the introduction was really good and it looked like the rest of the book would be also. But it soon got very technical and dull. Then it would get more interesting again. Then it would be very hard to read and understand. Then we'd have several pages of diagrams and obscure notation.I don't really know how to rate this book. The basic idea is that language is a human instinct, and that language is acquired naturally. I understood a lot of his examples and some of what he said made sense. But I was frankly lost a lot of the time. I did study linguistics at least a little back in college, but that was not much help here.I would say if you are interested in the subject, it might be worth a try, but it's certainly not for everyone.
    Move_and_Merge on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    I don't much care for Pinker and find it daunting that he's somehow attained "celebrity" status in cognitive science. Was it with books like this that he did so? This basically reads like an extended defense of Chomsky's universal grammar (UG) and Fodor's language of thought (LOT) hypothesis (perhaps not surprising--Pinker's name often comes up when a discussion of "mentalese" is at hand). A great deal of it is vacuous and it affords criticisms of UG and LOT barely a nod. Overall, lazy and predictable. Oh, and the jokes aren't funny.
    EowynA on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    I greatly enjoyed this book, and read all but the last quarter of the last chapter about 5 years ago, maybe more. I set it down, and never finished it. I came across it again in the book case, started at the bookmark, and finished it. I know I never counted it in any of my yearly book lists, though it has influenced my thought since I started reading it. His thesis is that the mind has an instinct for language - that we are Not a blank slate when we are born. The mind makes certain assumptions about patterns, and what patterns are meaningful. He does this by looking at commonalities across languages, experiments in (and humor created to show) how people use words, and studies of how children acquire their native language. Pinker is a Darwinist, so he examines how this instinct could have been selected for, evolutionarily. His writing style is readable and clear, but on the dry side. He leavens it with humor, but still it takes some effort to get through. Here is one example, from the book opened at random: "To become speakers, children cannot just memorize; they must leap into the linguistic unknown and generalize to an infinite world of as-yet-unspoken sentences. But there are untold numbers of seductive false leaps: Mind -> minded, but not Find -> finded," and he goes on with more examples (found on page 281). Another example from p. 85: "The way language works, then, is that each person's brain contains a lexicon of words and the concepts they stand for (a mental dictionary) and a set of rules that combine the words to convey relationships among concepts (a mental grammar)." Then he goes on to discuss the examples that support this thesis. But for anyone interested in language, linguistics, and how the mind works, Steven Pinker's books are all essential reading. Just give yourself the time. They are not a quick read. There is much to chew on here.
    nocto on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    Took me a terribly long time to get through this book, but I did enjoy it a lot.
    miketroll on LibraryThing 10 months ago
    If you only ever read one book about the science of language, make it this one. Drawing on the imagery of the computer age, Steven Pinker makes a powerful case for the idea that we are born with language skills etched in the hard drive of our brains.
    thierry on LibraryThing 10 months ago
    In this highly praised book, the author covers a lot of ground on how language was created and constructed, how it is learnt and how it evolves. The author argues that language is a human instinct hard-wired in our brains. Frankly, I found this book tough to read for very scientific and sometimes dry. It is an interesting technical subject but I miss the sociolinguistic aspect of it ¿ communities speaking languages over time, imagining a human context. The book is still on my shelf, perhaps I should read it again.
    tkhanson on LibraryThing 10 months ago
    Pinker is a wonderful writer, and I enjoyed this book almost as much for the writing as the content (which was extremely stimulating). He makes a very convincing case, especially so if you don't know much about linguistics (I didn't). After reading this I went on to read other books on "mentalese" (aka "the language of thought"), and found that Pinker's position is pretty controversial and probably on the decline. I don't know how much of the rest of the book is like this, but it's worth reading, regardless.
    _Greg on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    This is the most delightful book written by the amazing and brilliant Steven Pinker. It covers the nature of human language from the most modern perspective. It is also a thoroughly delightful read for anyone with any interest in this area.
    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.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago