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

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
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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. It helped that I had an enthusiastic professor whose wealth of knowledge and general zeal turned my disappointment in the English department's lack of additional linguistic offerings into a fervent hunt for extracurricular reading material regarding the topic, though I can't help but feel that my self-guided tour through the field isn't yielding the same benefits I'd've received from exploring the same terrain with an expert leading the way. Hence my concern that I'll sound like I'm trying to pretend that I know what I'm talking about on some deeper level when my background in the roots of language is far more recreational than academic. All's I can say for sure is that The Language Instinct was great fun, beautifully written and an absolute whirlwind of information that covers a dizzying array of unexpected but thought-provokingly relevant subjects.

Oh, and that Steven Pinker has the most admirably disheveled hair since Georges Perec. Their locks are not to be trifled with, nor, clearly, are their minds.

The last language-centric book I read argued in favor of a point that had been laughed into noncredibility for years thanks to the implied racism it still carried from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis days, which is that the world actually looks different based on one's view of the world based on his or her culture and language (Through the Language Glass, written by Guy Deutscher and published in 2010 -- and which I must admit to having read long enough ago that I have shamefully forgotten many of its finer details but do recall as having made a rather convincing argument, as it delved into stuff such as how a language can reflect a culture's attitude toward its women) -- an hypothesis that Pinker decried within the first 50 pages of this 1994 bestseller as "wrong, all wrong," as it is his view that "discussions that assume that language determines thought carry on only by a collective suspension of disbelief." My copy of The Language Instinct includes Pinker's chapter-by-chapter asides about updates in the many areas he explored in a book he published more than two decades ago, including the neo-Whorfism that has sprung up in recent years, a revival that allowed works such as Through the Language Glass to be taken more seriously because the misguided blinders and red herrings of the linguistic avenue of contemplation have finally fallen away and its points can be made in such a way to sidestep the unfortunate pitfalls of the past.

Seeing the inverse of an argument made just as successfully as my initial exposure to it was what sucked me in for good with this book. The overlapping of an argument's two sides and seeing familiar names, familiar backgrounds, familiar failings and completely different conclusions were all strangely rewarding payoffs for my own curious, solitary explorations.

And that spark of recognition just kept cropping up in myriad forms as I read on and on (and on and on, as it took me, like, two months to finish this -- absolutely no fault of Pinker's, but rather that of my compulsion to juggle two and three books at once and work's nasty habit of reducing my reading time in two-week cycles). While the biology and neurobiology and child development and abnormal psych were all a bit of alien territory for me, Pinker presented them all in such accessible ways that my tactile-learner self was picking up everything he was putting down. Which made the friendlier faces I'd seen before all the more inviting: The progression of Old English to Middle English to Modern English was like having tea (or mead) with an old friend, reading about the Great Vowel Shift was like reminiscing with an old lover and wondering if maybe the stars are finally aligned in our favor, the uncanny commonalities between seemingly unrelated tongues was a kiddie ball pit wrapped in a trampoline for my brain, and the pages and chapters of grammatical theory? Be still, my pedantic heart! I didn't even mind, as a happily neurotic proofreader, when Pinker started asserting that maybe the Grammar Mavens have their priorities all wrong, that even nontraditional dialects have their merits, that "whom" ought to go the way of "ye" and its other equally antiquated brethren, that it's okay to hang on to the rules of usage for clarity's sake rather than browbeating those poor folks who don't work themselves into paroxysms of glee at the very notion of sentence diagrams over their truly nitpicky transgressions.

I had no idea the lengths and detail necessary in asserting that something so mind-bogglingly complex but is so universally taken for granted -- that is, human speech -- is a deep-seated biological impulse, hard-wired into our brains to the point that we are all, in fact, baby geniuses when it comes to sussing out most of the nuances of our diabolically tricky native languages by the age of three. I had no well-formed opinion on the matter of language as a learned habit versus a communicative imperative instilled in us via evolution before coming into this but did Pinker ever reel me in, hold my attention and make me want to delve deeper into his research, theories and positions regarding the language instinct. Bearing witness to the impressive lengths he goes to to cover all his ground from every angle is reward enough for hearing him out for nearly 500 pages, because Pinker's dedication to the language instinct is evident enough in the miles of homework he did to make his point with armfuls of wide-ranging detail and chapter upon chapter of some truly compelling writing.
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Reading Progress

05/09/2013 page 12
2.0% "Please excuse the unladylike puddle of drool I'm getting all over this book." 7 comments
05/10/2013 page 90
16.0% ""Recently, I saw a word-chain device that generates breathless book jacket blurbs, and another for Bob Dylan song lyrics.""
05/21/2013 page 119
21.0% ""Chomsky's writings are "classics" in Mark Twain's sense: something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.""
05/27/2013 page 161
29.0% ""Like inflections, stem affixes are promiscuous, mating with any stem that has the right category label....""
05/31/2013 page 196
34.0% ""Is the floor likely to rise up and bite you?"" 1 comment
06/07/2013 page 216
37.0% "Three-thirty in the a.m. is the perfect time to start feeding into the fear that I've been slinging garden path sentences this whole time." 2 comments
06/11/2013 page 251
43.0% "I now must find books about the Great Vowel Shift and the evolution of accents." 2 comments
06/12/2013 page 303
55.0% ""Some pupils master grammar with no more than a few moans of protest. Others, given the same instruction, persist in saying that Susie invited her and I to the party."" 5 comments
06/13/2013 page 391
71.0% ""Plato and Diogenes were not doing biology when Plato defined man as a "featherless biped" and Diogenes refuted him with a plucked chicken.""

Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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message 1: by Jenn(ifer) (new) - added it

Jenn(ifer) I'm in the same boat!


Madeleine Yay for being in good company! Boo to being too busy for GR!


message 3: by Jenn(ifer) (new) - added it

Jenn(ifer) pretty soon I'm going to be behind on my reading goal. that never happens!


message 4: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Damn real life always getting in the way of the good(reads)life. You are missed as well! But I totally get it. Glad you liked this one. I'm sort of stalled on it at the moment (but not because it is bad, more like real life - and trying to read too much at once - getting in the way).
I love how all his examples typically end up referencing either Star Wars or unicorns. The guy is amazing. And has such perfect, careful pronunciation.


Madeleine Jenn(ifer) wrote: "pretty soon I'm going to be behind on my reading goal. that never happens!"

Oh, that red-font rebuke is terrifying. "You are x books behind on your goal!" is largely why I set my goal at one this year. Good luck -- though I think you won't really need it in the end. You rock, Ifer!


Madeleine s.penkevich wrote: "Damn real life always getting in the way of the good(reads)life. You are missed as well! But I totally get it. Glad you liked this one. I'm sort of stalled on it at the moment (but not because it i..."

Aw, thanks! I can't say I mind when life reminds me how much I've come to truly like the people I've "met" on this site when I start missing their reviews and back-and-forth comments but I can really do without the self-imposed guilt that makes me feel like I'm neglecting those friendships. And the intellectual banter, too -- god, does an onslaught of work ever make me miss talking to smart people.

Oh, I started and stopped this so many times that I worry things got lost in the long gaps. I was so happy that Pinker had a tendency to reiterate certain points that he made, like, eight chapters before bringing it all home as they related to other, later assertions. I'd love to sit in on one of his lectures. Especially with that pronunciation -- you weren't kidding! My mumbling, stuttering self is in awe of people who are so precise in their speech. And, yeah. His examples are so delightfully rife with nerd. I actually guffawed at a few of his sentence-construction examples. I have such a weakness for when people who are so smart can be goofy.

Heh, ambitious readerly undertakings are a blessing and a curse. I feel that pain, as well as the constant intrusion of real life. I hope things lighten up for you soon!


message 7: by Aubrey (new)

Aubrey Yay for autodidacticism! Also, I will admit to being proud of finally getting myself to use 'whom' properly. Sad, but true.


Madeleine Aubrey wrote: "Yay for autodidacticism! Also, I will admit to being proud of finally getting myself to use 'whom' properly. Sad, but true."

Yes, indeedy! What it lacks in formal guidance it sure does make up for in ensuring that I'm learning about the things that I want to learn about however I feel like approaching them. :)

Oh, there is a definite pride in successful execution of "whom." That is just one of those words that makes me feel like a pretentious jerk whenever I bust it out among folks who aren't as enamored of proper usage as I am. Which is pretty much everyone who is neither a GR nor a real-life pal.


message 9: by Aubrey (new)

Aubrey I did a little dance when I first accomplished it, and my sister gave me the weirdest look. She gave me an even weirder one when I explained my reason for jubilation.


Madeleine SO DANCE-WORTHY, THOUGH. I understand your well-earned sense of accomplishment! It is such a strangely difficult word to master.


message 11: by Garima (new)

Garima I don't know the proper usage of "whom". I think I even committed a mistake in my recent review...ohhh the embarrassment (In case you'll read it then please drop me a message correcting my review text. I'll appreciate your proofreading 'friendly service' a lot ;) ). As for this review, it's excellent! I can see there's a lot of information and knowledge one can equip oneself about the happenings of behind the scenes.


message 12: by Aubrey (new)

Aubrey Garima wrote: "I don't know the proper usage of "whom". I think I even committed a mistake in my recent review...ohhh the embarrassment (In case you'll read it then please drop me a message correcting my review t..."

If you can replace 'who' with 'them' and the sentence still makes sense, 'whom' is the word for you.


message 13: by Garima (new)

Garima Aubrey wrote: "Garima wrote: "I don't know the proper usage of "whom". I think I even committed a mistake in my recent review...ohhh the embarrassment (In case you'll read it then please drop me a message correct..."

Thank you, Aubrey. I'll keep that in mind from now on. A day of learning something is a wonderful day.


Warwick I reckon whom's gonna be extinct soon anyway, personally. It's already pretty much gone in the spoken language.


message 15: by Aubrey (new)

Aubrey 'Tis a good thing then that with language, extinction is a matter of personal preference.


message 16: by Madeleine (last edited Jun 28, 2013 09:06PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Madeleine Garima wrote: "I don't know the proper usage of "whom". I think I even committed a mistake in my recent review...ohhh the embarrassment (In case you'll read it then please drop me a message correcting my review t..."

Thank you, Garima! Yes, this book was like a whole lot of introductions to and overviews of a whole lot of topics I wasn't even expecting to learn about, let alone ones I expected to be so completely fascinated by.

"Whom" can be a tricky beast but I see Aubrey came to the rescue with what also happens to be my favorite trick for remembering its proper application. It's one of those many easy mistakes of English that I only truly understood once I saw grammar through the eyes of another language (Latin, to be precise).

You should never be embarrassed by grammatical mistakes in your reviews! I have found that the friends we share are rather good at looking past the little errors to see a review's bigger message -- goodness knows I've found so many stupid, glaring errors in my own writings that everyone else must have seen but politely ignored. That being said, I have no problem admitting that I reread and edit and edit and revise and edit my own reviews like someone's paying me for 'em, so I understand all too well how frustrating it is to find a typo or usage no-no in one's own writings. Especially when they're the product of too much editing rather than not enough (if only I had a dollar for every time I changed a word and created a whole new mistake!).

I am so behind on reviews but I will certainly be reading your recent one soon! Garima reviews are, of course, always welcome treats.


message 17: by Madeleine (last edited Jun 28, 2013 08:03PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Madeleine Aubrey wrote: "If you can replace 'who' with 'them' and the sentence still makes sense, 'whom' is the word for you."

Yeppers, this is the rule I follow, too.


Madeleine Warwick wrote: "I reckon whom's gonna be extinct soon anyway, personally. It's already pretty much gone in the spoken language."

I just wish I didn't worry that the non-grammar-obsessed folks among whom I live would think me a pretentious dick every time I dropped a whom-bomb. Huzzah for GR and the written language!


message 19: by Aubrey (new)

Aubrey I have never yet come across a published review of mine without at least three grammatical errors. I even drop entire parts of sentences sometimes. No one seems to mind, though, so I don't worry too much about fixing things afterward.


Warwick Madeleine, have you read The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left? It's probably the best book out there on why ‘the Grammar Mavens have their priorities all wrong’, as you put it, all in the context of historical fights over English usage. It's brilliant. I haven't reviewed it, sadly, as I read it pre-GR, but I'd point you to Cecily's excellent review.


message 21: by Michael (new)

Michael I appreciate your ambition to read this and harvest something worth holding. I took a tour of his follow-up 12 years later in 2007's The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Natureand came away with a sense of how slow progress has been in understanding universal innate foundations of language as set out by Chomsky.

I appreciated a lot better the more humble approach he took in his 1997 book How the Mind Works--review. In a way, this is a companion to "The Languuage Instinct" in its delving into cognition as a form of mental language with a universal grammar.


message 22: by Steve (new)

Steve Well now look at you, Madeleine, smashing that mental block to smithereens! This sounds like fascinating material. I'm glad to hear it was still accessible despite the academic nature of it. Looks like the comment section offers some good follow-up reading, too.


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