Book Review the Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

‘Language Instinct’ is one of the best works on the subject of language I have ever encountered. Steven Pinker is a psychologist specialising in language development in children and in this book he writes about language: not English, Chinese or Navaho, but language in general, which encompasses all of the languages spoken on Earth as well as the underlying ‘language engine’ embedded inside our heads.

The book is passionate, well argued, erudite and full of what Pinker himself describes as ‘torrent of relevant detail’. The detail is taken from literature, linguistic, experimental psychology, neuroscience, genetics, poetry and what is often called ‘real life’ (as if all the others were somehow weightlessly imaginary).

Pinker’s writing is eminently readable: lucid, clear and entertaining. He hovers somewhere over the line between relaxed literary and educated colloquial which makes his style reminiscent of what a good lecture should be like. It’s learned but accessible, precise but not stifled, conversational but not rambling, sometimes humorous but never primitive, passionately committed but never irrational or unreasonable.

The book aims to offer an integrated analysis of the phenomenon of language. But there is more to it than a simple summary of the scientific discoveries. The whole work is a powerful argument for seeing language as a ‘complex specialised skill, which develops spontaneously without formal instruction, qualitatively the same in every individual and distinct from more general abilities to behave intelligently” – in other words, for seeing language as innate, as an instinct.

The structure of the book (weighing in almost 500 pages in a small format paperback) is very clear and each of the chapters is devoted to a separate subject area, to the degree that virtually each of them could be enjoyable and informative even when read separately. There is also a comprehensive glossary included, comprising of obscure (X-bar theory, anyone?) as well as more commonplace (philosopher, adverb) terms.

I would say that the book could be read by a reasonably natural-science-literate 16 year old and it doesn’t assume basic knowledge above A-levels, although of course people familiar with biology, linguistics, scientific psychology, cognitive science or even old-fashioned grammar will find it easier to read without a frequent need to consult the glossary. All in all it’s an excellent popular science book, both informative and entertaining. In fact if I was to recommend a book for a non-psychologist interested in the science of the mind, “The Language Instinct” would be in my top three.

*Summary fo the content*

Pinker starts with the universality of language: all human societies talk (they also joke and create songs and poems, apparently) and they talk well – the myth that some languages are more primitive or that some dialects (for example spoken by working class Northerners or American ghetto blacks) are somehow inherently worse is one of the first myths that the book debunks.

But then, the universality of language doesn’t have to mean that it is innate, after all language is such a useful thing that it could have been invented from new many a time in human history. We don’t use feet for eating but nobody claims that we have a special ‘use-of-hands-for-eating’ gene.

The rest of the book is a rich, powerful argument in support of the thesis that a mechanism for language learning is not only universal but innate, that “Children actually reinvent it, generation after generation – not because they are generally smart, not because it’s useful to them, but because they just can’t help it”.

One of the most important concepts introduced in the book is one of ‘mentalese’. Mentalese is an universal, underlying language of the mind, related but different from all natural spoken languages. It is used for thinking and it is from mentalese that the thoughts get ‘translated’ into the words and phrases of natural languages. If we accept that such a thing exists – that there is indeed an underlying language of thought which is not like any of the spoken natural languages – we can happily refute the once popular hypothesis of linguistic determinism. Language does not deterministically shape the thought. It’s not true that what cannot be said cannot be thought about. Imposition of Orwellian Newspeak would never remove certain concepts from people’s heads. “Concepts of freedom and equality are thinkable even if nameless. Mental life goes independently of particular language”.

A lot of the book is devoted to the mechanics of language, and Pinker looks at it from the point of view of structure (Chomsky`s generative grammar) but also describes the underlying biological basis. These chapters contain plenty of rather terrifying tree-diagrams and parsing charts, logical formulae as well as grammar and anatomical terms. However, the way the book is written actually allows for skipping the strictly technical stuff. Of course, the understanding gained in this way will be somehow shallower, but it is still possible to learn something even if all the graphs and formulae are skipped. And there are real gems of information and – especially – explanation here.

Have you wondered what colourless green ideas were doing (answer: sleeping furiously)? Admired Lear’s and Carroll`s nonsense? Thought why it was OK to say that Mel devoured pizza but not Mat devoured; and – on the contrary – why Mel can dine but Mat cannot dine pizza? Why Walkmans and Mickey Mouses rather than Walkmen and Mickey Mice? Why pitter-patter and ping-pong but never patter-pitter and pong-ping? How a perfectly civil and positive letter of reference can, essentially, say ‘don’t hire the guy, he’s useless’? Can we blame the genes for sloppy grammar? What happens when the brain is, literally, split in half? How does English differ from other languages and what was the process in which it differentiated from its ancestors?

Pinker’s background is in researching the language development of children and thus the book has very good sections relating to language acquisition. The effortless way with which children learn to talk must have surely amazed any parent who ever stopped to think how complicated speaking actually is. Pinker shows how natural and how good children are at talking in comparison to their rather poor performance on many other mental and physical tasks, and demonstrates the logic of the whole process (including the errors that are made during learning). Did you know that three year olds are actually structurally correct in over 90% of their speech? Amazing! The book also shows why it makes sense to have a critical period for language learning (it seems virtually impossible to acquire language after early adolescence if none was learned before).

It is the two closing chapters of the ‘Language Instinct’ that are my favourites. In fact, if you pick this volume up and are not sure, go straight to the chapter titled `Language Mavens`. It focuses on the difference between the rules of natural language as it is actually spoken, which are strictly adhered to by all people that use the particular dialect and the *prescriptive* rules that carefully delineate the way that the speech is *supposed* to be. Pinker is rather ruthlessly dismissive of the prescribers and he treats most of their rules as shibboleths, designed to differentiate between the elite and the `uneducated masses`. He makes a convincing case for the `common talk` and slang and debunks nine examples of speech criticised as being incorrect but in fact being creative and internally logical.

On the other hand he has a very sensible attitude to the practical proposition that people should learn the `standard dialect` as socially useful and especially to improving the standards of the written prose. After all, written language is not an instinct. We are biologically designed to speak, but not write or read. Writing is a craft; a difficult one and one that ‘needs practice, instruction, feedback and examples’. Perhaps this difference between spoken and written language is what many of the writers here should also contemplate, assuming of course that they wish to do it well?

The final words in the book go well beyond language and towards a theory of mind in general. Pinker is one of the most passionate exponents of evolutionary psychology, an approach to ‘human science’ that I personally find both fertile as a basis for research and strangely exhilarating as a view of the humanity.

The universal human nature which we all share, the fact that we came here equipped with sophisticated mental systems of which language is only one, albeit very significant one; the meta-culture that makes communication possible between an Eskimo, New Guinea highlander and an Oxford don, the hundreds of human universals from gossip and jokes to use of tools, from sex in private to fear of snakes, from laws against murder and rape to feasting and fondness for sweets. It all testifies to the fact that despite speaking superficially different languages we all have the same minds.