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Read it, but read it critically
on 2 October 2005
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. 'Instinct' is not a word much in favour among biologists nowadays and whatever language is, it is certainly not instinctive in the traditional sense. Early in the book, Pinker admits as much, but determines to use the word anyway, a use that owes more to marketing than to science.
Still, this is probably the best introductory linguistics text currently available. If you are new to linguistics, start here rather than with Chomsky, but please go on to read Geoffrey Sampson's work, perhaps starting with his website, to get an alternative view. As with most academic disputes, the answer no doubt lies somewhere in the middle. Since Chomsky's early work, the nativists have toned down their claims considerably, while their opponents have made concessions. On page 34 of this book, Pinker says, "No one has yet located a language organ or a grammar gene, but the search is on." More than a decade later, the search is still on. Good luck with that.