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The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind (Penguin Science) [Paperback]

Steven Pinker
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
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Book Description

30 Mar 1995 Penguin Science

Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind is a groundbreaking study of language's origins as an evolutionary adaptation.

How do we 'know' how to speak?

In his landmark book Stephen Pinker shows how language is part of our genetic inheritance rather than a cultural creation. From the DNA that builds our brains to the pontification of newspaper columnists, Pinker destroys the myths about language - that children learn to talk by copying their parents, that grammatical standards are in decline, that English defies logic - revealing the innate human instinct to communicate that we are all born with.

'Reading Steven Pinker's book is one of the biggest favours I've ever done my brain ... highly accessible to the general reader yet at the same time seminal for professionals ... exhilaratingly brilliant'
  Richard Dawkins

'An extremely valuable book, very informative, and very well written'
  Noam Chomsky

'Brilliant ... Pinker describes every aspect of language, from the resolution of ambiguity to the way speech evolved ... he expounds difficult ideas with clarity, wit and polish'

'Dazzling ... Pinker's big idea is that language is an instinct, as innate to us as language is to geese ... Words can hardly do justice to the superlative range and liveliness of Pinker's investigations'

Steven Pinker is a best-selling author and Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for cognitive Neuroscience at MIT. Pinker has been awarded research prizes from the National Academy of Sciences and the American Psychological Association, graduate and undergraduate teaching prizes from MIT, and book prizes from the American Psychological Association, the Linguistics Society of America and the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Language Instinct.

Frequently Bought Together

The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind (Penguin Science) + How the Mind Works (Penguin Press Science) + The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
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Product details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (30 Mar 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140175296
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140175295
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 12.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,625 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Steven Pinker is one of the world's leading authorities on language and the mind. His popular and highly praised books include The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct. The recipient of several major awards for his teaching, books, and scientific research, Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He also writes frequently for The New York Times, Time, The New Republic, and other magazines.

Product Description

From the Publisher

Science Is...
According to Steven PInker, science is an institution that fosters the instinct to make sense of the world while discouraging the instinct to deceive ourselves and one another. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Steven Pinker is a best-selling author and Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
56 of 61 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Read it, but read it critically 2 Oct 2005
By Peter Reeve VINE VOICE
Addressing as it does issues of cognition, language usage and acquisition, evolutionary biology and innate versus learned behaviour, this work is relevant to many of the great intellectual debates of our time. It is very readable for the most part, although if some of the topics are new to you then you will find a few sections rather heavy going. More illustrations would have helped here. There are syntax structure diagrams and one very grudging, cursory sketch of the language centers of the brain, but many sections cry out for a diagram among all the verbiage.
Pinker's lively, humorous style is often commented on but I sometimes found it wearing. He will illustrate a point with an amusing newspaper cutting, then list a few more, then add "I could not resist some more..." and so on. I sometimes wished he would just get on with it.
A major problem with his nativist approach is that many examples he lists of usages that English speakers would never employ are nothing of the kind. Most of them are conceivable and since the first publication of this book, linguists have been busy recording them in the field. The thesis also becomes somewhat unravelled in the penultimate chapter, where he argues that 'you and I' and 'you and me' are equally correct in all circumstances, because 'the pronoun is free to have any case it wants'. But if this is so then what has become of the innate awareness of correct usage that the whole theory is about? If 'between you and I' sounds instinctively wrong to me and 'between you and me' sounds instinctively wrong to someone else, does that mean one of us has a mutant grammar gene? I doubt it.
The title itself is problematic.
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123 of 137 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
This book is certainly well-written and very stimulating, but readers new to the subject should be aware that it is highly polemical, and not at all a neutral dispassionate introduction to the field. The book is written from a strongly Chomskyan perspective - indeed the constant worshipful references to the Great Man become tedious after a while, and the many shortcomings of Chomsky's Transformational/Generative Grammar theory are not mentioned. It is one thing to argue - as Pinker does, convincingly - that human beings are born with an innate ability to deduce the grammatical rules of any language from a limited input. It is another to claim that there exists a Universal Grammar which applies to any language (this is not proven in the book), and it is another still to claim that Chomsky's grammar (which hardly works for English let alone any other language) is that Universal Grammar. The book contains some basic linguistic mistakes, which make one question the real expertise of the author (who is a cognitive psychologist, not a linguist). Just one example: to claim (p127) that in an agglutinative language eight morphemes can be combined in half a million different ways is ridiculous, supposing as it does that they can be combined in any order (in fact each morpheme has to go into a particular "slot" in the word). Nevertheless, a stimulating read - inspiring on one page, infuriating on the next. But please don't take it as Holy Writ (especially the Chomskyan bits).
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but bad 6 Jan 2009
Pinker really goes all the way in this, bathing the reader in wonderful language, interesting ideas and good old fun and games. But the sad part is that his premise and conclusion--that language is an instinct--is a total and complete non sequitur.

Being a fan of Chomsky, Pinker submits to the notion (and a notion it is) that language and communication aren't necessarily related (as Chomsky (1975) said, "communication is only one function of language, and by no means an essential one"). Although Chomsky in recent years has done a lot to moderate his position, and a lot of research at least suggest that the world has come out of the post-skinnerian, anti-"blank slate" state in which it was in the seventies, when Chomsky reigned, Pinker upholds the sharp divide between grammar and usage. Why?

Because The Language Instinct isn't really about language. It's about completing Pinker's reductionist trilogy, consisting of this one, The Blank Slate, and How the Mind works. In The Language Instinct, Pinker doesn't analyze the facts and draws a valid conclusion. He simply tells us how convenient to his worldview it would be if language really was an instinct. I believe that makes The Language Instinct theology (or at best, philosophy) and not science.

Still, this book is a fine introduction to chomskyan grammar, X-bars and the like. Plus it's fun. But scientifically, it lacks stringency, humility and honesty. The book is filled with thin case studies that could mean the "instinct hypothesis" is correct or wrong, depending on your interpretation (of course Pinker chooses "correct"), and quote mining (the worst example being one in which Pinker gets the one name he's quoting wrong--twice!--plus, the book he's quoting is really about something else than what Pinker claims.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read, but basically wrong 22 Mar 2009
Pinker has something interesting things to say on the subject, but forgets to say the the 'language instinct' (Chomsky's 'universal grammar') is not accepted as correct by a great number of linguists. When this is a book written for laypeople this is a dangerous oversimplification. Since this book was published, evidence for this point of view has dwindled and evidence for the other side (basically, culture affecting what we say/what we can say/how we say it etc) has grown. I recommend Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle for a highly entertaining, down to earth and accessible analysis of just one language which proves Chomsky, Pinker et al wrong in so many ways.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars ok
Was a gift for friend and will ask her and get back to you if ;you think that is ok.
Published 9 months ago by V. E. Livingston
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, easy to read and informative
This book was recommended to my by a tutor as additional reading around the topic of how we learn language. Read more
Published 13 months ago by C. Lambert
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Fantastic book. Well-suited for the tyro and student alike. The early chapters quickly bring you up to speed with the basis for the book and its arguments. Read more
Published 14 months ago by O. Peatman
4.0 out of 5 stars accessible and enjoyable
Here is the book that I would really want to have half-stars to rate it with. (Preposition at the end of the sentence, language mavens will catch me!) I would give this book 3. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Judyta Szacillo
2.0 out of 5 stars Professor Pinker's potentially pointless pontifications prove...
To summate. Blah, blah, BORING, BORING, conjecture, blah. Thinly veiled attack on Chomsky. Blah, blah, unproven hypothesis. Another attack on Chomsky. Read more
Published 16 months ago by ARWoollock
5.0 out of 5 stars Language is an instinct
Groundbreaking. Not only does Pinker propound that language is an instinct but conveys this by a lucid explanation, accessible but scientific. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Jane Baker
2.0 out of 5 stars Mojo
This book will engage many lefty liberals interested in deconstructing society on their terms but beyond that I doubt whether it has much of a market elsewhere. Read more
Published 20 months ago by Nobby
4.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening and enjoyable, as well as challenging
I believe that it's essential to have a bit of a scientific knowledge regarding this matter as a lot of the terms are quite new. Read more
Published on 17 April 2011 by CMP3010
5.0 out of 5 stars A very interesting book
This book is for anyone who is interested in the current science on how our brains learn and process language. Its a must read for anyone who is a language aficionado. Read more
Published on 2 Feb 2011 by Ash
1.0 out of 5 stars Dont buy it
Now, the reason I picked this book up (not that I need to justify it to anyone other than my self) is because I really wanted to know if we are indeed born with a sense of language... Read more
Published on 23 July 2010 by Sontee
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