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The Language Instinct [Paperback]

Steven Pinker
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 26 2000 Perennial Classics

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 language into a compelling story: language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution like web spinning in spiders or sonar bats.  The Language Instinct received the William James Book Prize from the American Psychological Association and the Public Interest Award from the Linguistics Society of America.


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From Publishers Weekly

A three-year-old toddler is "a grammatical genius"--master of most constructions, obeying adult rules of language. To Pinker, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psycholinguist, the explanation for this miracle is that language is an instinct, an evolutionary adaptation that is partly "hard-wired" into the brain and partly learned. In this exciting synthesis--an entertaining, totally accessible study that will regale language lovers and challenge professionals in many disciplines--Pinker builds a bridge between "innatists" like MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who hold that infants are biologically programmed for language, and "social interactionists" who contend that they acquire it largely from the environment. If Pinker is right, the origins of language go much further back than 30,000 years ago (the date most commonly given in textbooks)--perhaps to Homo habilis , who lived 2.5 million years ago, or even eons earlier. Peppered with mind-stretching language exercises, the narrative first unravels how babies learn to talk and how people make sense of speech. Professor and co-director of MIT's Center for Cognitive Science, Pinker demolishes linguistic determinism, which holds that differences among languages cause marked differences in the thoughts of their speakers. He then follows neurolinguists in their quest for language centers in the brain and for genes that might help build brain circuits controlling grammar and speech. Pinker also argues that claims for chimpanzees' acquisition of language (via symbols or American Sign Language) are vastly exaggerated and rest on skimpy data. Finally, he takes delightful swipes at "language mavens" like William Safire and Richard Lederer, accusing them of rigidity and of grossly underestimating the average person's language skills. Pinker's book is a beautiful hymn to the infinite creative potential of language. Newbridge Book Clubs main selection; BOMC and QPB alternates.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Following fast on the heels of Joel Davis's Mother Tongue ( LJ 12/93) is another provocative and skillfully written book by an MIT professor who specializes in the language development of children. While Pinker covers some of the same ground as did Davis, he argues that an "innate grammatical machinery of the brain" exists, which allows children to "reinvent" language on their own. Basing his ideas on Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar theory, Pinker describes language as a "discrete combinatorial system" that might easily have evolved via natural selection. Pinker steps on a few toes (language mavens beware!), but his work, while controversial, is well argued, challenging, often humorous, and always fascinating. Most public and academic libraries will want to add this title to their collections.
- Laurie Bartolini, Lincoln Lib., Springfield, Ill.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Deeply Flawed But Fascinating Oct. 13 2002
Format:Paperback
Steven Pinker's best-known book has some wonderful chapters, some so-so chapters, and a few that damage the credibility of the rest. Chapter 6 on how the sounds of spoken languages are formed is itself worth the price of the book. Chapter 2 on the grammatic differences between languages is fascinating. Chapters 4, 5, 7 and 8, which talk about grammar and its role in determining meaning, are well-meaning but become repetitive and obvious. When talking about Artificial Intelligence he is ill-informed and unaccountably pessimistic about future advances in the field. In Chapters 3 and 9 he proposes a "language instinct" and in chapter 10 a "grammar gene," but both hew to discredited Chompskian models and don't even try to establish any mechanism. In chapter 11 he dismisses the whole field of non-human communication in toto, citing such Christian apologists as Herbert Terrace. Instead he sets up a series of straw men, claiming that because that apes cannot master advanced grammar in human languages (undisputed), somehow this makes their mental processes unworthy of study. This contradicts his earlier claim, in chapter 3, that mental processes can exist quite independently of grammar and language. He apparently never even considers that non-human grammar may differ from ours. Worse, he doesn't even mention non-primate language research! 12 is a vitriolic dismissal of all his critics, and 13 falls into the common trap of describing evolution as "wanting to build" this or that, a common convention for which he could be excused if this were his only failing.
Throughout, Pinker maintains a breezy, readable tone full of pop-culture references - which unfortunately becomes infuriating when it's obvious he doesn't know what he's talking about.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A master of his domain. May 10 2008
Format:Paperback
Insightful, interesting, and far-reaching. For a book on language, Steven Pinker has a lot of general information to offer, whether psychological, neurological, biological, or otherwise. He explores the idea of whether language is a biological instinct, like reproduction and predation are, albeit a more cerebral instinct than those others. Drawing on evidence from a number of psychologists, neurologists, linguists (namely, Noam Chomsky), and anthropologists, Pinker offers convincing support for the language instinct.
Prior to reading, I was warned that the chapters on descriptive grammar rules were torture, a linguist's overzealous and methodical approach to something that has become a complex science, but I actually really enjoyed those chapters... despite being a little harder to digest than the rest of this well-written book, Pinker's down-to-earth approach gives readers the basics and then branches out on them in a manageable and surprisingly interesting way. And this is what sets his books apart: he writes in an entirely accessible manner and has the talent to keep any reader interested.

Even when tackling the really big questions, Pinker keeps a steady and objective pen. I recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in just how and why humans learn language: the proposed answers are absolutely fascinating.
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Format:Paperback
For a non-technical and non-orthodox introduction to the origins and characteristics of language this book is excellent. It could be read by anyone who is curious about linguistics as understood by an expert, but whose ideas on the subject are considered somewhat unconventional from the standpoint of modern research in linguistics. Indeed, the very title of this book may raise many an eyebrow from some entrenched schools of modern linguistics. The author though has written a highly interested book here, and after reading it one carries away a deep appreciation of the complexities of language.
Some of more interesting and surprising facts that are discussed in the book include: 1. There has never been a tribe or group discovered that does not use language, and there is no evidence that a particular geographical region has acted as source of language that is spread to groups that previously did not use language. These facts do lend credence to the author's thesis that language is instinctual. 2. The level of industrialization or technology of a society apparently is not correlated with the complexity of the language used by that society. Examples of this are given, such as the Bantu language in Tanzania, whose resemblance to English is compared to the difference between chess and checkers. In addition, the author dispels the myth that individuals in the "lower classes" of society do not speak as eloquently or with as much sophistication as the "middle classes". The Black English Vernacular or BEV is cited as an example, and the author quotes studies that indicate higher frequency of grammatical sentences in working-class speech than in middle-class speech. 3.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good intro to where human language comes from March 20 2004
Format:Paperback
Professor Pinker has written an entertaining and easy-to-read book about how the human race comes to have language, apparently based on Noam Chomsky's not-so-entertaining or easy-to-read books, plus some of Prof. Pinker's own observations. He believes language comes out of people by instinct rather than totally as a learned skill. In this regard, he finds infants to be "geniuses" of language in that, for example, they can produce grammatically correct expressions they haven't heard before. To call them geniuses seems to me misusing the term somewhat. If a genius is someone who far exceeds the norm for his age group in some respect, then babies are not geniuses, since almost all seem to have the instinct for language. This minor quibble over terminology is not to dispute that human infants pick up language with great facility, however.
The discussion of how the brain works in the area of language is followed by a discussion of prescriptivist grammar, which Pinker criticizes for being a collection of outmoded and inappropriate rules that in many ways hamper more than help verbal expression. This is like shooting fish in a barrel, of course, since any collection of rules and regulations will eventually be rife with inconsistencies and unnecessary strictures. Taking potshots at grammar rules is like picking on the U.S. tax code or our collection of laws in general. As do many critics of grammar rules, Pinker occasionally employs ridiculous examples that a competent writer or editor would very likely avoid or eliminate entirely with a more efficient phrase or sentence.
When I encounter antiprescriptivists, I always wonder what they would substitute for grammar rules, if anything. They often refer to a "natural" grammar, which is apparently the instinctive process that Pinker finds.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars The Language Instinct
Reading this from a language teacher's point of view, it's a great read. The book offers plenty to think think about, and even quite a few discussions about language that I've... Read more
Published 21 months ago by glen cochrane
3.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant. Wordy.
I admit it. I'm a language lover. After growing up learning French in Canada, I entered high school looking for my 'next big thrill'. Read more
Published on April 9 2011 by Michael A. Robson
1.0 out of 5 stars Warmed-Over Chomskyite Baloney
Pinker knows a great deal that isn't so about language and human behavior, and misleads many people who mistake this mixture of fact, false knowledge and downright ignorance with... Read more
Published on Aug. 27 2007 by Bruce I. Kodish
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding language - fascinating, and vital for writers!
Steven Pinker has written a fascinating account of how language works; how we, as listeners, process the sounds that make up words and sentences in a way that allows us to extract... Read more
Published on June 12 2006 by Danny Iny
5.0 out of 5 stars I disagree with one reviewer (taking time for one)
The reader, for example from Glasgow Kentucky claims that Pinker's book is a populist account rather than the writing of a professional linguist? Read more
Published on June 11 2004 by Ninja
1.0 out of 5 stars The Bookselling Instinct
Begin with a title that asserts the conclusion.
Start the book by aligning the author with Chomsky in postulating an innate, universal grammar capacity. Read more
Published on April 10 2004 by calmly
5.0 out of 5 stars An important and useful book
This book covers modern linguistics for the general reader. Steven Pinker writes very well, so he's able to unload an enormous amount of facts without boring you in the details. Read more
Published on Feb. 7 2004 by SPM
2.0 out of 5 stars Where's the Kool-Aid stored?
I waded through a book on modern linguistic theory, scratched my head over the author's apparent misplaced certainty over what seemed awfully flimsy conjecture, and then started on... Read more
Published on Feb. 5 2004 by littlebeartoe
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
I loved this book. I gained from it a greater appreciation of both the complexity and beauty of language.
Published on Nov. 13 2003 by James L. Dam
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging
This is by far the most entertaining of the several books I've read on this topic. Steven Pinker bursts the bubble on some outdated theories of language retention and creation. Read more
Published on Sept. 2 2003 by AMC
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