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on 19 August 2016
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on 10 March 2003
Pinker is an entertaining and engaging writer and this is by far his best work. His style is relaxed, comic and he has an ability to pluck a salient example from the ether to prove whatever point he is currently making. This is a great introduction to linguistics in general an the 'language instinct' debate in particular, but the problem is: I can't find the bit of this book that shows how and why the language instinct exists. Pinker entertains and educates throughout this book without managing to prove his central thesis: That language is innate. By the final chapter I was truly convinced that I had missed a whole section, because, inamongst the quips and puns, I simply cannot find any relevant argument. Pinker could easily have written the same book and called it 'The lack of a language instinct'.
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on 6 August 2001
The Language Instinct-Steven Pinker
WOW! This was a fantastic book. Pinker is a fantastic writer who really makes the subject of language acquisition interesting. This is a MUST read for anyone who has the slightest interest in learning or teaching languages. Pinker takes the reader through different ideas of language theory and points out the strengths and weaknesses of these ideas. His explanations are clear, lucid and logical.
If you do buy this book you will find a lot of interesting topics for conversation. I teach English in Germany and this book gave me lots of food for thought. After every chapter I wanted to call up my teacher friends and talk about different ideas and theories. I often use his examples to explain things to my students (and understand things for myself). After reading this book, my job became interesting again, and how many books can do that for you?
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on 17 March 2017
This is such a stimulating book.
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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 14 June 2013
This book was recommended to my by a tutor as additional reading around the topic of how we learn language. It is a great introduction to some linguistic theories and in depth enough to really get to grip on some of the theory.

As the title suggests, the book argues that we have a "language instinct." comparable to the instinct that birds have to navigate and spiders spin webs. It doesn't suggest that no linguistic input is required, rather that we are hard wired to respond to and decipher this input, or in the absence of adequately complex language. It is the sort of book that you can read for pleasure and chat about too.
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on 13 April 1999
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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on 22 March 2009
Pinker has something interesting things to say on the subject, but forgets to say the the 'language instinct' (Chomsky's 'universal grammar') is not accepted as correct by a great number of linguists. When this is a book written for laypeople this is a dangerous oversimplification. Since this book was published, evidence for this point of view has dwindled and evidence for the other side (basically, culture affecting what we say/what we can say/how we say it etc) has grown. I recommend Daniel Everett's Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle for a highly entertaining, down to earth and accessible analysis of just one language which proves Chomsky, Pinker et al wrong in so many ways.
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on 17 October 2000
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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on 12 January 2015
Interesting, but tries to cover too much ground in one volume. Author takes the view that language is a "pre-programmed instinct" in humans, which is an unorthodox view. "The Language Myth" takes the opposite view.
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