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The Language Instinct Paperback – 1994


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  • Paperback
  • ASIN: B002BD5536
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,414,537 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Peter Reeve VINE VOICE on 2 Oct 2005
Format: Paperback
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 on 6 Jan 2000
Format: Paperback
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 By Kjetil H. Hogstad on 6 Jan 2009
Format: Paperback
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 By J. Clarke on 22 Mar 2009
Format: Paperback
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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