Sunday, August 24, 2014

When we construe an aspect of the world as something that can be identified and counter or measured and that can play a role in events, language often allows us to express that aspect as a noun, whether or not it is a physical object.

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates LanguageThe Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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!!


  • 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.

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