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Steven Pinker

P.S.: The Language Instinct : How the Mind Creates Language (Paperback)

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<p>In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, weaves his 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. </p> <p></p> Along the way, The Language Instinct lucidly explains the important issues your students need to know about language: how it works, how it evolved, how children learn it, how the brain computes it, and how it changes. <p></p> &quot;A brilliant, witty, and altogether satisfying book.&quot;--New York Times Book Review <p></p>

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In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, weaves his 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.

Along the way, The Language Instinct lucidly explains the important issues your students need to know about language: how it works, how it evolved, how children learn it, how the brain computes it, and how it changes.

"A brilliant, witty, and altogether satisfying book."--New York Times Book Review

• Author: Steven Pinker • ISBN:9780061336461 • Format:Paperback • Publication Date:2007-09-04

Specifications

Language
English
Series Title
P.S.
Publisher
HarperCollins
Book Format
Paperback
Original Languages
English
Number of Pages
576
Author
Steven Pinker
Title
The Language Instinct
ISBN-13
9780061336461
Publication Date
September, 2007
Assembled Product Dimensions (L x W x H)
8.10 x 5.30 x 1.10 Inches
ISBN-10
0061336467

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Average Rating:(3.8)out of 5 stars
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Most helpful positive review
1 customers found this helpful
Average Rating:(5.0)out of 5 stars
Pinker is a wonderful ...
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.
Most helpful negative review
5 customers found this helpful
Average Rating:(2.0)out of 5 stars
Steven Pinker lost me ...
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: written language didn't arise for centuries after oral grammar "evolved" as a phenotype. But this hardly helps Pinker, since (as he himself points out, with reference to a transcript of the Watergate Tapes) when people talk in ordinary conversation they almost *never* use complete grammatical sentences: they interrupt themselves, they rely on physical gestures, they break off in mid stream and start a new thought, they don't punctuate (there's no unequivocal punctuation in spoken English), all the time. As is fashionable amongst the "reductivist" and "evolutionary" set these days (a set I would otherwise, in general terms, consider myself in agreement with), relativist arguments are scorned. But Pinker's paradigm implies that, provided we are competent in constructing our own sentences, we should all understand each other perfectly, all the time: there should be no ambiguity; no room for miscontrual; no possibility for evolution in ideas or language. It is difficult to see how anyone could believe such a thing. But neither the structure of language and grammar nor its practical use needs to be perfect for effective communication *at some level* to be possible, and surely that is all that is needed. The beauty of the contingent view of language, which Pinker seems unable to appreciate, is how it can account for the missed margin of communication which might explain the everyday cultural and interpretative problems we all face, and the figurative and metaphorical power we all find at our disposal. Ogden Nash's dilemma is our dilemma, however much Steven Pinker might wish it were otherwise. An earlier reviewer has mentioned Geoffrey Sampson's "the Language Instinct Debate" as a compelling antidote to Pinker's world view. Having recently read it (on the strength of that recommendation), I would firmly agree. In perhaps an ill-advisedly grumpy tone, Sampson - whose position at the University of Sussex inevitably means his academic profile is lower than Pinker's or Chomsky's - systematically and convincingly annihilates many of the arguments (such as they are) in Pinker's work.
Most helpful positive review
1 customers found this helpful
Average Rating:(5.0)out of 5 stars
Pinker is a wonderful ...
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.
Most helpful negative review
5 customers found this helpful
Average Rating:(2.0)out of 5 stars
Steven Pinker lost me ...
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: written language didn't arise for centuries after oral grammar "evolved" as a phenotype. But this hardly helps Pinker, since (as he himself points out, with reference to a transcript of the Watergate Tapes) when people talk in ordinary conversation they almost *never* use complete grammatical sentences: they interrupt themselves, they rely on physical gestures, they break off in mid stream and start a new thought, they don't punctuate (there's no unequivocal punctuation in spoken English), all the time. As is fashionable amongst the "reductivist" and "evolutionary" set these days (a set I would otherwise, in general terms, consider myself in agreement with), relativist arguments are scorned. But Pinker's paradigm implies that, provided we are competent in constructing our own sentences, we should all understand each other perfectly, all the time: there should be no ambiguity; no room for miscontrual; no possibility for evolution in ideas or language. It is difficult to see how anyone could believe such a thing. But neither the structure of language and grammar nor its practical use needs to be perfect for effective communication *at some level* to be possible, and surely that is all that is needed. The beauty of the contingent view of language, which Pinker seems unable to appreciate, is how it can account for the missed margin of communication which might explain the everyday cultural and interpretative problems we all face, and the figurative and metaphorical power we all find at our disposal. Ogden Nash's dilemma is our dilemma, however much Steven Pinker might wish it were otherwise. An earlier reviewer has mentioned Geoffrey Sampson's "the Language Instinct Debate" as a compelling antidote to Pinker's world view. Having recently read it (on the strength of that recommendation), I would firmly agree. In perhaps an ill-advisedly grumpy tone, Sampson - whose position at the University of Sussex inevitably means his academic profile is lower than Pinker's or Chomsky's - systematically and convincingly annihilates many of the arguments (such as they are) in Pinker's work.
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.
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: written language didn't arise for centuries after oral grammar "evolved" as a phenotype. But this hardly helps Pinker, since (as he himself points out, with reference to a transcript of the Watergate Tapes) when people talk in ordinary conversation they almost *never* use complete grammatical sentences: they interrupt themselves, they rely on physical gestures, they break off in mid stream and start a new thought, they don't punctuate (there's no unequivocal punctuation in spoken English), all the time. As is fashionable amongst the "reductivist" and "evolutionary" set these days (a set I would otherwise, in general terms, consider myself in agreement with), relativist arguments are scorned. But Pinker's paradigm implies that, provided we are competent in constructing our own sentences, we should all understand each other perfectly, all the time: there should be no ambiguity; no room for miscontrual; no possibility for evolution in ideas or language. It is difficult to see how anyone could believe such a thing. But neither the structure of language and grammar nor its practical use needs to be perfect for effective communication *at some level* to be possible, and surely that is all that is needed. The beauty of the contingent view of language, which Pinker seems unable to appreciate, is how it can account for the missed margin of communication which might explain the everyday cultural and interpretative problems we all face, and the figurative and metaphorical power we all find at our disposal. Ogden Nash's dilemma is our dilemma, however much Steven Pinker might wish it were otherwise. An earlier reviewer has mentioned Geoffrey Sampson's "the Language Instinct Debate" as a compelling antidote to Pinker's world view. Having recently read it (on the strength of that recommendation), I would firmly agree. In perhaps an ill-advisedly grumpy tone, Sampson - whose position at the University of Sussex inevitably means his academic profile is lower than Pinker's or Chomsky's - systematically and convincingly annihilates many of the arguments (such as they are) in Pinker's work.
Average Rating:(5.0)out of 5 stars

Pinker is a wonderful ...

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.

Helpful?
Average Rating:(5.0)out of 5 stars

This is the book that ...

This is the book that blew my mind in college. Never thought of language in this way ever. Perhaps it's the luck of having read this first in my dive into linguistics, but this is one of those books I look fondly back on. Totally made me become much more incensed by grammar Nazis--an idealistic position I now know--and then on a second read a couple years later, made me slid right into the in-between of prescriptive and descriptive ideology where I belong. Definitely recommend.

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Average Rating:(5.0)out of 5 stars

If your not sure about...

If your not sure about this book. Just pick it up in the bookstore and turn to page 355. If find the chart there terribly amusing then go ahead and buy it. If not you might want to move on.Pinker has obviously thought about this, a lot....people simply assume that words determine thoughts...Sometimes it is not easy to find any words that properly convey a thought. When we hear or read, we usually remember the gist, not the exact words, so there has to be such a thing as a gist this is not the same as a bunch of words....if there can be two thoughts corresponding to one word, thoughts can't be words.Our sixth sense may perceive speech as a language, not as sound, but it is a sense, something that connects us to the world, and not just a form of suggestibility.When a series of facts comes in succession, as in a dialogue or text, the language must be structured so that the listener can place each face into an existing framework.This mirrors my thoughts exactly- not only for words but for knowledge in general....there is a specific syndrome called Pure Word Deafness that is exactly what it sounds like: the patients can read and speak, and can recognize environmental sounds ... but cannot recognize spoken words; words are meaningless...Oh boy! This is sooo me! Often I have to visualize the written words before I can understand what was said.Great advice Pinker received from one of his editors-Think of your readers as your college roommates: people who are as smart and intellectually curious as you...I agreed with most of his conclusions but he lost me at;"The linguistic clumsiness of [age] might be the price we pay for the linguistic genius we displayed as babies"I just don't see why it has to be a zero-sum game.It's funny that the next book I read was Paul Allen's biography. At the end he talks about how incredibly difficult it is to catalog and index vast amounts of information. Pinker was even mentioned by name! Certainly those two geniuses could pool their knowledge and come up with an algorithm based on Pinker's understanding of language to file and organize all that is known on a subject.

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Average Rating:(4.0)out of 5 stars

This is a book I gave ...

This is a book I gave to my oldest son one Christmas when he was in love with language and it looked like he was heading down the path to becoming a linguist. He went back to school before I could steal the book off his bookshelf to read it, so when I found it on his bookshelf in Seattle I was overjoyed. I've wanted to read this book for a long time. It was worth the wait. Pinker is an excellent science writer and he makes the (often difficult) material as easy to understand as anyone could. An excellent book.

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Average Rating:(4.0)out of 5 stars

A highly readable acco...

A highly readable account on how language is an inherent characteristic of the human species, which I found a bit unpleasant to read at times. Pinker is such a good writer that I feel a little inadequate in responding to his book, but that aside, I thought it was an erudite book on a complex topic, like all Pinker's books. It is also a bit controversial, as Pinker skewers many a layman's misguided ideas about language, its origins, and its uniqueness to humanity. And not only a layman's ideas; Pinker takes everyone from the social scientists to what he calls the 'language mavens' (editors and other arbiters of prescriptive grammar) to task for promulgating false ideas about language. I found Pinker's more polemical chapters a bit uncongenial, mostly because they attack some of my own subconscious ideas about language. I didn't realise that I felt as strongly about prescriptive grammar until Pinker attacked it and its proponents. I don't mind Pinker's attacks on some of the more archaic rules of grammar (such as split infinitives and ending sentences on prepositions, and so forth) but I did find his fulminating a bit tiresome at times, especially when he sets up some straw men that he can easily knockdown. A quibble, really, but still. Pinker is on much firmer, and to me more interesting, ground when he explains the psychological and evolutionary origins of language. This is simply brilliant and lucid exposition, and I enjoyed it immeasurably. Pinker's explanation of how language evolves in children, and how this seems to argue for a 'language instinct' in humans (Chomsky's Universal Grammar) is masterful. I also enjoyed his withering refutations of the assertions of those primatologists who claim to have taught chimpanzees sign language, and the more absurd claims of some anthropologists (such as the infamous '100 different words for snow' claimed for the Eskimos). My one problem with the book is that it came out in 1994, so how up to date it is, in an ever-changing field, is problematic. I wish Pinker would update the book, but maybe he's too busy writing books about the decline in violence (The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I intend to read next year), and whatnot. Highly recommended, but not one to swallow hook, line, and sinker.

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