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37 Reviews
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56 of 61 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Read it, but read it critically
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...
Published on 2 Oct 2005 by Peter Reeve

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123 of 137 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Polemical, stimulating, inspiring, but also infuriating
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...
Published on 6 Jan 2000


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4.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening and enjoyable, as well as challenging, 17 April 2011
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. Other than that it points out a lot of facts that are worth thinking about and triggers you to look into this matter in depth!
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Persuavily written falsehoods, 14 Oct 2009
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Pinker writes extremely well, and makes a persuasive argument for a nativist perspective of language acquisition. His examples, however, seem to be almost entirely anecdotal, making little attempt to back up his assertions from contemporary studies. After reading this at first, a few years back, Pinker had me sold on the subject. After reading Geoffrey Sampson's excellent 'Educating Eve', however, Pinker's work became more transparent. I would recommend this book (along with Sampson's) to anyone writing an essay on the nativism/empericism debate - but only to get an extreme perspective which can be counterpointed with more rational views from other, less partisan texts.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Both fascinating and hugely entertaining, 13 April 1999
By A Customer
I found I could dip in and out of this book, skip the occasional section (the formulae got a bit much after a while, he'd made his point) and still get an enormous amount out of it. First Pinker sets out the compelling case that humans have an innate instinct to learn language, using some extraordinary case studies of people who have invented their own, every bit as grammatically complex as established language. Then he shows you just how inherently complex it is by some good examples of just how bad animals and computers can be at trying it themselves. This book succeeds admirably in setting out complex and potentially obscure arguments in a boldly entertaining, accessible and provocative way, making superb use of solid examples, anecdotes and occasionally plain conjecture.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful and informative, 17 Oct 2000
By 
M. L. Amanda (France) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Language Instinct (Paperback)
This is a book written by an expert for non-experts and experts alike. Entertaining, informative and funny, it really makes you think about why we humans speak and how we use language. Despite a couple of linguisticky (!) explanations, you won't get bogged down in jargon. A must for all lovers of language.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A cogent argument for the evolution of language, 17 April 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Language Instinct (Paperback)
The Language Instinct is one of the best books I've read in quite a while. Pinker's writing is clear, easy to follow, and well thought out. His sense of humor is insidious: just when I thought I was mired in some abstruse concept with no hope of getting untangled, he would slip in a word, a subtle reference, or a bit of seemingly out of place vernacular that always brought a smile to my face, and often had me laughing out loud, but it never failed to show me the path out of the briarpatch. I highly recommend this book and I plan to read his other works, as well. Were I planning a dinner party and could invite anyone, Pinker would definitely make the short list.
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12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a great book!, 1 April 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: The Language Instinct (Paperback)
I'm reading The Language Instinct for a linguistics course. This is really interesting stuff and very readable. I've learned some very interesting theories about how people learn languages, much more plausible than the "we copy our parents" theory I was raised on.
But there's a lot more than just how we learn language. This is about how we are constantly re-creating language, and although the ideas are expressed in English, they apply to every spoken language.

Read it!
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12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 16 May 2004
By A Customer
As a primary school teacher, I have become very interested in how we learn language. I had heard good reviews about this book, so decided to read it for professional reasons. However, I really enjoyed it on a personal level. It is a fascinating area, written in simple terms - not too much jargon, lots of anecdotes...
I did find the style slightly irritating, but that is probably due to the fact that it is written by an American scientist - it certainly didn't put me off reading the book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 17 Oct 2014
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Recommended reading in my psych undergrad degree. Really good, accessible reading. Not like reading a text book!
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14 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Elegantly Expressed Claptrap, 11 Nov 2006
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Steven Pinker lost me as a buyer of his thesis with the very second sentence of his book:

"For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in other's brains with exquisite precision".

It you take that for granted, Pinker's book will seem compelling and not especially controversial. Steven Pinker clearly takes it for granted, perhaps because he can't conceive of how we could possibly communicate effectively and coherently if it were not true.

Consider the following, which I think perfectly encapsulates the world view Pinker can't conceive of, by Ogden Nash:

Caught in a mesh of living veins,
In cell of padded bone,
He loneliest is when he pretends
That he is not alone.

We'd free the incarcerate race of man
That such a doom endures
Could only you unlock my skull,
Or I creep into yours.

To my way of thinking, it is the very fact that we *can't* "shape events in other's brains with exquisite precision" - or with any reliable certainty at all, that describes the human condition. The frisson created by precisely that ambiguity underpins all communication; it is the source of irony, tragedy, comedy, invention and imagination. Any theory of language which denies that fundamental contingency of human communication (as this one does) is going to have to prove it, and displacing that onus is a heavy task indeed.

Pinker's psycho-linguistics makes precisely that denial, by holding that all human communication - every language - shares an inate, evolutionary programmed Universal Grammar, precisely because Pinker can't conceive how else human communication could be possible.

I'm no academic, and certainly I have no background in linguistics. Given that this theory - which is from the same tradition as Noam Chomsky's - has been the ascendancy amongst academic linguistics for the best part of the last thirty years, Steven Pinker being one of the leading "normal scientists" within the paradigm (if I should be so bold as to use that word), and that The Language Instinct is considered fairly widely to be his magnum opus, I was expecting to have my naive relativistic assumptions carefully and systematically dissected, then annihilated, one by one.

So imagine my surprise to find that in the place of carefully drawn arguments and compelling statistical data, one finds a tissue of anecdotal arguments carefully selected to fit the theory, arguments from authority ("Chomsky is one of the ten most cited writers in all of the humanities"), dubious suppositions in place of statistical data (the "it is difficult to imagine the following grammatical construction being used" sort of thing), begged questions, non sequiturs, and Roger Penrose-style irrelevant scientific waffle - especially as regards evolution - and a decided absence of any consideration of competing theories of linguistics - and straw men versions of those which do rate a mentioned.

In short, Steven Pinker employs just about every illegitimate arguing technique in the book. His theory completely fails to account for metaphor (metaphor is barely mentioned in the book), nor the incremental development of language, the evolution of different languages with different grammars and vocabularies. At times Pinker is forced to argue that the grammar of our language is sometimes different from the words we actually speak and write, containing unspoken "inaudible symbols" representing a word or phrase which has been moved elsewhere in the sentence, so the sentence "The car was put in the garage", according to Pinker's Universal Grammar should technically be rendered as: "was put the car in the garage", and the construction we use can only be explained by movement of "The car" and the insertion in its place of an inaudible "trace":

"[The car] was put [trace] in the garage".

Now, again I am no technical linguist, but this has all the hallmarks of pure bullpuckey to me.

Finally, Pinker is at pains to point out that Universal Grammar is only ever applicable to oral language: written language didn't arise for centuries after oral grammar "evolved" as a phenotype.

But this hardly helps Pinker, since (as he himself points out, with reference to a transcript of the Watergate Tapes) when people talk in ordinary conversation they almost *never* use complete grammatical sentences: they interrupt themselves, they rely on physical gestures, they break off in mid stream and start a new thought, they don't punctuate (there's no unequivocal punctuation in spoken English), all the time.

As is fashionable amongst the "reductivist" and "evolutionary" set these days (a set I find myself increasingly unable to remain in agreement with), relativist arguments are scorned. But Pinker's paradigm implies that, provided we are competent in constructing our own sentences, we should all understand each other perfectly, all the time: there should be no ambiguity; no room for miscontrual; no possibility for evolution in ideas or language. It is difficult to see how anyone could believe such a thing. But neither the structure of language and grammar nor its practical use needs to be perfect for effective communication *at some level* to be possible, and surely that is all that is needed. The beauty of the contingent view of language, which Pinker seems unable to appreciate, is how it can account for the missed margin of communication which might explain the everyday cultural and interpretative problems we all face, and the figurative and metaphorical power we all find at our disposal. Ogden Nash's dilemma is our dilemma, however much Steven Pinker might wish it were otherwise.

An earlier reviewer has mentioned Geoffrey Sampson's The Language Instinct Debate as an antidote to Pinker's world view. In perhaps an ill-advisedly grumpy tone, Sampson - whose position at the University of Sussex inevitably means his academic profile is lower than Pinker's or Chomsky's - systematically and convincingly annihilates many of the arguments (such as they are) in Pinker's work.

Olly Buxton
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language is an instinct, 3 Feb 2013
By 
Jane Baker "jan-bookcase" (Somerset) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
Groundbreaking. Not only does Pinker propound that language is an instinct but conveys this by a lucid explanation, accessible but scientific. He covers all aspects of language with a clarity which is enabling for the amateur but scientific enough for the professional. His investigations explore the biological evolution of language and answer questions on the pathology of disorders found in speech. His examination of phrase structure as a fundamental requirement of the evolution of language is fascinating. Also covered stylishly but sympathetically is the nature of dialect. This book is an essential requirement for the student of language.
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