Do we deduce rules from the world around us and behave rationally? Or do we free-associate, discovering the world through experience and creative analogy? The obvious answer is "both". But proof of the obvious answer has long eluded philosophers of mind. Pinker, though, believes he has found it--in the English past tense.
English verbs come in two flavours. Regular verbs have past tenses that look like the present-tense verb with "-ed" on the end--today I walk, yesterday I walked, etc. The second kind of English verb is irregular. Irregular past tenses follow no rules--today I buy, but yesterday I bought; today I hold, yesterday I held.
The way children distinguish between these different sorts of verbs as they learn to talk suggests they learn both by rule and by association. Proving this is Pinker's task--and it's a bravura performance.
It takes nothing away from that other recent lit-hit, Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue, to say that Pinker's book achieves an altogether deeper level of profundity. It says much for Pinker that in doing so, he can still match Bryson for wit and readability. --Simon Ings
From the Publisher
How does language work? How do children learn their mother tongue? Why do languages change over time, making Shakespearean English difficult for us and Chaucer's English almost incomprehensible? Why do languages have so many quirks and irregularities? Are they all fundamentally alike? How are new words created? Where in the brain does language reside?
In WORDS AND RULES, Steven Pinker answers these and many other questions. His new book shares the wit and style of his classic, THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, but explores language in a completely different way. In this book, Pinker explains the profound mysteries of language by picking a deceptively simple single phenomenon and examining it from every angle. That phenomenon the existence of regular and irregular verbs -- connects an astonishing array of topics in the sciences and humanities: the history of languages; the theories of Noam Chomsky and his critics; the attempts to duplicate human language using computer simulations of neural networks; the illuminating errors of children as they begin to speak; the peculiarities of the English language; the sources of the major themes in the history of Western philosophy; the latest techniques in identifying genes and imaging the living brain... --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.