Customer Review

18 of 36 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Linguistics is not a science., 3 Mar. 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: The Language Instinct (Paperback)
In `The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker argues that humans are genetically endowed with a capacity for language. On casual reading the book presents a powerful case for a single mental design underlying all human language. However, careful reading shows his arguments are profoundly flawed. There are faults throughout the book: 1. He has got many of his facts wrong. 2. He has drawn illogical conclusions from the facts he states. 3. He has failed to consider alternative explanations for the phenomena he cites. 4. He has failed to provide an explicit description of the underlying mental design for which he argue. I`ll take these points in turn: 1. Wrong facts A. On p.237 he states `All languages have a vocabulary in the thousands or tens of thousands.` On p.261 he talks about a language with a 200 word vocabulary. B. He states, and this is central to his case, that all languages which sre subject-verb-object, SVO have (only) prepositions and all languages that are SVO have (only) postpositions. On p.115, he gives two sentences which show Latin to be SVO although it has almost exclusively prepositions. The two examples of archaic Englsih given on p.240 show the same thing about that language. C. On p.235, he states that `hammered` was originally something like `hammer-did`. This is an interesting statement in itself because it means that the result of a transformation pre-dates the existence of the transformation thus undermining champter 4 (How Language Works) in its entirety. In addition, Pinker later changes his statement to `The English suffix -ed MAY have evolved from "did"`. (p.246)
These are nit-picking examples, but if Mr. Pinker wishes to claim that linguistics is a science, he should uphold the standards normally demanded in sciences. 2. Illogical conclusions A. On p.111, the author jumps straight from the statement "...such consistency has been found in scores of languages..." to the conclusion that the rules apply to "all phrases in all languages". B. On p146 (and 237) there is an argument about compound words being formed with plurals only if the plurals are irregular. It is asserted that children will automatically generate compounds such as `mice-eater`, but never `rats-eater`. It is then argued that the limited exposure they would have had to such constructions makes learning this rule impossible and thus the rule must be innate. There are several faults with this reasoning. Firstly, it is not true. There is no rule in English which permits the formation of compounds with irregular plural , but permits compounds with irregular plurals. On my native island, there is a man called the footpaths inspector and another called a roads officer. (According to Pinker, p.133, the absence of a hyphen makes no difference.) If the children had been asked what an animal that eats oats is called, they may well have replied "oats-eater". Secondly, in French we find compounds formed from regular plurals (grands-meres, grands-peres, beaux-freres). The first of these3 shows number agreement being applied, even when gender agreement is not. If the alleged rule were innate, it would apply in all languages. Thirdly, there is a simpler explanation for this phenomenon. 3. Failing to consider alternative explanations. Most of Mr. Pinker`s evidence has a much simpler explanation than the universal grammar hypothesis. Specifically, the same sentence can be generated in many different ways. For example, the sentence cited on p.279 `What did he eat?` can be generated from `What did he do?` or even learnt as a stock question. Pinker asserts, without evidence, that the question must be generated by the application of Chomsky`s grammar from the starting point `He ate what.` That we occasionally get compounds formed with irregular plurals is more likely to be a failure to apply the principle of not making compounds with any plurals resulting from not hearing plurality in the construction. There is no principle specifically permitting compounds with irregular plurals. We do not say geeseneck, geesebumps, feetball, feetprints, teethpaste or teethbrush. the `fuzzy logic` principle, that we generate language by the wieghting of associations, hinted at on p.211 is a far simpler explanation of nearly all Pinker`s evidence. But the weakest link in the book is 4. The lack of an explicit description of universal grammar. When it comes to identifying the characteristics of the underlying mental design of language, the author is uncharacteristically reticent. On p.234 he assures us that Joseph Greenberg, analysing 30 far-flung languages found no fewer than 45 universals. But he does not identify them. Perhaps they included tha no language uses the same word for `mouse` and `lamp-post`. Pinker`s own universals include `no language forms its negatives by reversing the order within a sentence.` Some universals are described as `statistical` (p.234). Does he understand the word `universal`? He then repeats the untrue statement about prepositions and SVO word order. In fact, all his universals are: 1. Not true, ". Not universal or 3. Not useful in learning a language. Since the fundamental argument for universal grammar is that language would otherwise be too complicated for children to learn, I have to conclude that there is no case at all. Mr. Pinker is to be commended for writing about linguistics in a readable manner, but in doing so he shows that linguistics, in its present form, is no more a science than is astrology.
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