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on 12 May 2016
Fascinating and mostly pretty readable
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on 1 August 1999
Steven Pinker, from the evidence of this book at least, clearly has a rare talent - to present a book crammed full of research information and argument yet make parts of it fantastically funny in the way it is written. His conclusions are by no means universally obvious, but his chief objective - to make the reader think about the issues involved and to suggest lots of questions and a few answers - is achieved.
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on 11 November 2006
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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on 19 May 2013
Fantastic book. Well-suited for the tyro and student alike. The early chapters quickly bring you up to speed with the basis for the book and its arguments. Pinker explains complicated theories and concepts clearly. His arguments are lively and engaging - certainly a relief in such a technical field. The books is approaching its 20th birthday but is still essential reading for all linguists.
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on 2 May 2010
This book ranks alongside "The Selfish Gene" in the small cadre of popular science books I would recommend that every thinking person should read. Elegantly and convincingly written, it makes a fine case for the instinctual nature of many aspects of human language and is an excellent rebuttal to those whose fear of "reductionism" (in particular, sociobiology, the attacks against which often verge on panic) leads them past the bounds of rationality and evidence. In particular, its demolishing of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems pretty devastating. Not impartial, by any means - the mark of the author's personality is stamped firmly on every page - but like Dawkins' books this makes it more readable, not less. Definitely a book that deserves to be widely-read.
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on 29 January 2015
good to read
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VINE VOICEon 3 February 2013
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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on 31 October 2015
Great book
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on 25 October 2007
Begin with a title that asserts the conclusion.

Start the book by aligning the author with Chomsky in postulating an innate, universal grammar capacity. The language instinct is indeed already a done deal.

Be guided carefully through selected cases that either seem to confirm the existence of a language instinct or selected cases to discount arguments to the contary.

So do you think we have a language instinct? If so, you are ready for the next sell, the reasoning instinct. And the list of 40 or so other innate capabilities that we all may have.

And we might find the very genes that make this possible. These instincts and genes fortunately don't seem to enslave us (as being conditionable would). They make us free and creative beings. Sound like a great payoff, right?

See how how the mind creates language? By instinct. Not just any instinct, an instinct based on genes. It's all clear now, isn't it? Too deep? If not, you're ready for the actual conclusion: we all have the same mind. So, Pinker affirms, even if you can't understand a New Guinea tribesperson, you can feel comfortable as you listen to him/her that the universal grammar is at work.

We are free and we are all one. Now you don't have to go back to the ancient Greeks or earlier to get that warm message of unity.

Skinner and behaviorism get no creditin this book despite some promising steps by behaviorists with language, such as helping autistic children to speak. It seems hard to deny we have some great capacities and it seems hard to deny that we can be conditioned - being able to be conditioned seems one of our great capacities. Pinker says we are have the same mind, but in this book excludes behaviorist contribution, so I wonder what kind of sameness he has in "mind".

No one should accept this book as adequate. I expect from his credentials and his excellent writing that the author could do a lot better. A science needs to do a lot more than appeal to "instinct", "mind". "freedom" and "oneness". It certainly may seem good to acknowledge we are amazing beings: you may feel warm and cozy when you finish this book, but ask yourself how you can apply what was presented in this book. Move past feeling wonderful about the structure of language and consider how language functions - as B.F. Skinner did in "Verbal Behavior", a less accessible but more useful and scientific try at understanding what we are doing with language.

When we seem not to have many useful answers, it's dangerous to write as if it's all clear. Don't be lulled by Pinker. If you read this book, ask yourself honestly: "Do I understand now how the mind creates language? Can I even see whether the mind creates language?" But first be sure to thank your mother and father for helping you to say "Momma" and "Dada" meaningfully.
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on 7 November 2001
After reading Pinker's book, I felt relieved that now at last some basic common sense had been applied to the theoretical study of language. Pinker manages to combine a professional style nevertheless accessible to the non-specialist, making for an englightening and highly entertaining read. Highly recommended.
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