The Language Instinct The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Year: 1994/2000
Pages: 544

When one thinks of “fun books to read,” the topic of psycholinguistics usually doesn’t come to mind. At this point, if you expect me to tell you “…but The Language Instinct was a real page-turner!” you would be wrong. The truth is, I’ve always had an interest in language, and I found Steven Pinker’s landmark work at a used bookstore in mid-July, and it piqued my interest enough to give it a try.

My impression is a mixed bag. But, then, so is the book. Pinker, a distinguished psycholinguist from MIT, goes all over the place, jumping from complex discussions of grammatical minutiæ to long chapters about evolutionary biology to phonology and etymology to current research in psycholinguistics. His point—and it should be noted that Pinker is by and large of the Chomskian, “Universal Grammar” school of thought—is that there is a “language instinct”1 that is hardwired into everyone, which explains for some base commonality in the grammar of all known languages.

I believe that Pinker does a good job of supporting his thesis—certainly, the man is a true cross-discipline genius, and I am likely to agree with him in many of the aspects. But there were parts of the book that got under my skin. It might just be because the study of linguistics has moved on since 1994, but many of Pinker’s examples of usage don’t have the impact he wants them to. To me, it seems like his assumptions of usage don’t bear quite the fruit he expected.

Another irritating factor is Pinker’s tendency for digression, where the thread of thought will get wrapped around so many examples, diagrams, blockquotes, and anecdotes, that one forgets where the spool began. This tendency made the book extremely wearisome at points, and I was glad to be done, because reading it exhausted me. Every so often, I would need to stop and look back to figure out where the hell Pinker started so his sudden jump back to topic didn’t confuse me.

But in my mind, Pinker does the most damage in the last two chapters. He takes swipes at people like Richard Lederer and William Safire, insisting that they severely underestimate peoples’ natural understanding of language—and that they seem goofy and antiquated arguing for a more rigid, formal usage of language. He then concludes by more or less arguing that many of the rules we have—”you and I” v. “you and me,” for example—are meaningless. I’m probably biased, being somewhat of the old, Safire school, but I find Pinker’s populist approach grating, and probably harmful— not to mention hypocritical, as the final chapter’s also feature Pinker qua apologist for his own formal usage. Using formal language to undermine formal language is a bit like a fully-dressed man deriding the usefulness of clothes: I don’t buy it, and I fail to be convinced by Pinker’s argument.

I am willing to accept the theory that there is a commonality of grammar to spoken language—if not by a “language gene,” then by some other common factor—but Pinker didn’t do enough to support his thesis and way too much to goof around with language. I am of the understanding that there are better books to be read for a solid theory of modern psycholinguistics.

  1. What, didn’t you see that coming?[]
§1318 · August 22, 2006 · Tags: , , , ·

2 Comments to “The Language Instinct”

  1. […] I read this delightful little word in Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (and later in an H.L. Mencken excerpt) and decided it would be perfect for a Wednesday’s Word. It has a number of meanings, but its literal meaning is the first one, as it was used by the Gileadites to find Ephraimites, for whom the phoneme |š| or |ʃ|[1] was unpronouncable (see Judges 12:4–6). […]

  2. […] John Man’s excellent Alpha Beta. It actually ended up being more like Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, which isn’t bad, but merely […]

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