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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

4.04 of 5 stars 4.04  ·  rating details  ·  11,486 ratings  ·  577 reviews
In this classic study, the world's leading expert on language and the mind lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about languages: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, and how it envolved. With wit, erudition, and deft use it everyday examples of humor and wordplay, Steven Pinker weaves our vast knowledge of languag ...more
Paperback, 448 pages
Published November 7th 2000 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics (first published January 1st 1994)
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Community Reviews

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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
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.
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
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
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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 ...more
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
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
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 ...more
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 ...more
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Anthony D 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
Jun 24, 2009 Emanuela rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Elena in particular; in general, to anyone interested in the dynamics of language
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
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, through I suspect a bit dated by now. The parts about language - usage, construction, acquisition - are fascinating, the overly detailed kvetching about the overly detailed kvetching of newspaper columnists and the like and fitting things into evo-psych arguments and the like far less so.
Ik wou al sinds geruime tijd iets van Steven Pinker lezen. Vooral z'n taalgerichte boeken sprongen er bovenuit. Aangezien dit een van de klassiekers in het wereldje is, was de keuze snel gemaakt. Ik heb echter wel voor deze heruitgave gekozen, omdat Pinker een kleine update eraan toegevoegd heeft.

Het is natuurlijk geen eenvoudige kost, maar Pinker heeft het toch zo toegankelijk mogelijk gemaakt. Het is geen droog, academisch werk - althans, het is niet op die manier geschreven -, wel wat losser,
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 ...more
Pinker breaks through the superficiality of language to touch on something deep inside all of us.
He gives a language lesson that isn't boring at all.
I have been reminded in my daily life of many observations made in the book.
The thesis of the book is simple and well defended throughout:
Human language is an instinct.
Vague aspects of human language, like communication and symbolism are common in the animal kingdom.
But each different human language is a quirky, fanciful creation.
And the drive to ge
A book that tells you all that you might want to know about how humans are able to communicate with language. Pinker praises the work of Chomsky and tries to show that the fundamentals of language are built into the human mind, an instinct that is refined by our natural surroundings. He gives many examples of a fundamental grammar that all humans speaking whatever language have, which they use to organize sentences in their own language even if the sentence structures of two different languages ...more
John Wiswell
This review could be long or short. I wasn't sure if I wanted to waste the time, but it's a long book and there are some seriously interesting and seriously stupid things in it. It centers on the issue of language as learned or as instinct, which can be so fine an issue that most people really won’t care. For the short: it's very nice to see so much research on language presented and Pinker does a good job of explaining the often oversimplified theory that there is a genetic basis for understand ...more
Nikos Karagiannakis
"A blank slate is a dictator's dream"

Αυτή η φράση συνοψίζει τα όσα γραφει στο βιβλίο αυτό ο διαπρεπής πειραματικός ψυχολόγος και γνωσιολόγος Steven Pinker. Καταρρίπτει, με ταχύτητα μυδραλιοβόλου, έναν έναν τους μύθους περί γλώσσας. Περιγράφει, με ιδιαίτερη πρόζα, όλους τα χαρακτηριστικά της γλώσσας, για να καταλήξει με πειστικά επιχειρήματα και πειραματικές αποδείξεις ότι ο ανθρώπινος εγκέφαλος έχει διαμορφωθεί εξελικτικά για να ενσωματώσει στοιχεία μιας παγκόσμιας γραμματικής, ανεξαρτήτως της ε
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 ...more
Donna Woodwell
This was a fabulous overview of linguistics for the non-linguist. Not exactly light reading, though Pinker's dry humor makes it fun. His basic premise is that language is an evolutionary adaptation of humans to communicate information, just like wings are an adaptation of birds to fly, or gills for a fish to breathe underwater. For that I think he makes the case well. He's also very much anti-cultural relativism (one of my favorite quotes is: "I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than anyth ...more
Dave Maddock
Wow, a fair number of angry 1-star reviews of this book here on Goodreads. I suspect these are anti-Chomskyites or bitter social scientists who didn't like Pinker's criticism of relativism in the final chapter. Or possibly, johnny-come-latelys who are carrying over their critique from his later book, The Blank Slate. As a pop-sci overview of modern linguistics (ie. the whole point of the book), this is excellent.

Some random thoughts on criticism: Within the field Pinker certainly has staked out
Bit late to the discussion. The only question left to ask is one I’m not really qualified to answer: how well has the book aged over a decade and a half of psycho- and comparative linguistics? I’m not a linguist, but I know enough basic biology to sort the wheat from the chaff in a popular science book. Omit the chapters titled Grammar Organs and Language Genes, The Big Bang, and Mind Design. The general reader has probably forgotten more high school biology than these chapters rightfully explai ...more
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
Max Maxwell
Aug 15, 2009 Max Maxwell rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who wants to refute linguistic determinism
Recommended to Max by: Can't recall at the moment
This review is edition-specific. Excellent, if highly abridged, reading of the famous popularization of linguistic nativism. Lalla Ward, Richard Dawkins's wife and once an actress on Doctor Who, is well known among those who like science audiobooks for her contributions to the audio versions of her husband's The God Delusion and The Ancestor's Tale . Her reading here is characteristically lively, and of course, the material leaves nothing to be desired. Especially good was that one interview ...more
Katya Epstein
Probably the best book I have read on the topic. For starters, Pinker's writing is a pleasure to read: It's clear, clever, and affable. He writes the way he talks; he doesn't seem to feel the need to use fancy words just because he's writing a book (e.g. from the glossary entry for stem: "The main portion of a word, the one that prefixes and suffixes are stuck onto." He avoids that (inexplicable) academic affectation of pretending that the author and the reader don't exist (i.e., avoiding the fi ...more
Aug 11, 2008 Arthur rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Arthur by: my Spanish Linguistics professor
Shelves: science, language
This is a must-read for anyone interested in how language works. As the title would indicate, Pinker argues that language is an instinct and that our brains come pre-programmed with a Universal Grammar and an innate capacity to fill in the blanks with the specific grammatical rules and vocabulary we hear people use around us.

He also describes the basics of the modern science of language developed by Noam Chomsky and his followers, and although this section is a little technical, it is well wort
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 ...more
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Steven Arthur Pinker is a prominent Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science. Pinker is known for his wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and is the author of seven b ...more
More about Steven Pinker...
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“Chomsky is a pencil-and-paper theoretician who wouldn't know Jabba the Hutt from the Cookie Monster,” 7 likes
“A woman gets into a taxi in Boston's Logan airport and asks the driver, 'Can you take me somplace where I can get scrod?' He says, 'Gee, that's the first time I've heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive.” 6 likes
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