Jessica's Reviews > The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
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May 01, 11

bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in June, 2004

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 acquire language instinctively. Whether we are born into an English or Kinyarwandan or sign-language community affects only the details of our language acquisition - we are wired to understand the way language works.

He makes many good points, and I learned a lot from reading this book, but something underlying the text was somewhat disturbing to me (and it's not just the way he seems to revere Noam Chomsky as a god, quoting him earnestly and often, and almost overemphasizing the one point where he disagrees with Chomsky as if to say, "Look, all you people who think I'm just digesting Chomsky for the masses - I DO have my own thoughts! So there!"). It's that Pinker is 100% an objectivist, believing that our language and culture don't really affect the underlying processes in our minds and that human beings are ultimately the same, whereas I can't see the world without some degree of relativity slipping in, thinking that we are all very very similar and are justified in acting as if we are all the same, but that there are subtle differences that we may not entirely be able to overcome. I think lanugage, at least to a small degree, does affect the way we think and process the world, even if the differences are mostly ones we can see past or work around when talking with others from a different language background.

(I laughed every time I turned the book over and saw the quote on the back from William F. Buckley, Jr.: "Steven Pinker is, I think, engagingly wrong in some of his conclusions, but the operative word here is engagingly. He reminds us of the pleasures of reading about language, provided people like him are at the wheel.")

A few details I really enjoyed about this book: Case studies and quotes from people with various neurological disorders affecting their language abilities. The detail to which Pinker addressed sign languages, showing how language acquisition follows the same steps whether it is spoken or gestured (deaf babies "babble" with their hands at the same age that hearing babies babble with their mouths). The linguistics primers, which had me making phoneme sounds and sticking my finger in my mouth to see how my tongue and lips were arranged (while on the train!). Reasons why the "language mavens" (people who bemoan the decline of English) are often wrong.

This is definitely a worthwhile read if you're interested in linguistics but haven't studied much on the topic yet. There's a lot of value in this book, even though some passages do get overwhelmingly dry or pedantic (pages of sentence diagramming scattered throughout the book, for example). I wouldn't recommend it to a casual reader, since I kind of had to will myself to finish reading the book, but I do think I learned a lot for sticking it out.
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