The Language Instinct Paperback – Oct 26 2000
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Came in quickly, and helped a lot in my Linguistic's course as added reading and an excellent resource.Published 14 months ago by Mitch Cochrane
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 morePublished on Jan. 5 2013 by glen cochrane
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 morePublished on April 9 2011 by Michael A. Robson
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 morePublished on Aug. 27 2007 by Bruce I. Kodish
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 morePublished on June 12 2006 by Danny Iny
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 morePublished on June 11 2004 by Ninja
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
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 morePublished on Feb. 7 2004 by SPM
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 morePublished on Feb. 5 2004 by littlebeartoe
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