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The Language Instinct Paperback – Oct 26 2000

3.9 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 2000 edition (Oct. 26 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060958332
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060958336
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 3.1 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 454 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #936,436 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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 alternate Paperback edition.

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 alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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
I have a daughter who's just turned two and, therefore, prime material for an informal study of language development. Time and time again I found myself saying, "Yes - yes, of course" and relating it to what my daughter was doing. This was also one of those books that I kept finding interesting snippets I just had to tell my wife - immediately! She was so happy when I finished this book, I can tell you.
Steven Pinker is firmly on the side of us having in-built facilities for language development (as opposed to us having generic capabilities that have to be completely tuned each time for language). That suits me just fine but obviously if you are a nurturist you may find a lot to disagree with. Some of his more controversial points I did feel were pushing it, but on the overall premise that we have some built-in capabilities for language, I found him to be most persuasive.
This is definitely a lay-man's book. However, it is not a non-technical book - a previous study of logic, in particular, will probably help when reading. I glazed over a number of the Chomsky equation bits and pieces and I don't think I missed out on much by doing so. You can read it on many levels and find something.
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