Sunday, September 06, 2009

Book Review: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

I FINALLY finished a book that I've been reading for awhile, Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. Pinker is a popular scientist who spoke at the Origins Symposium that I went this last year (though I didn't get to see him). His particular field of expertise is experimental psychology. This particular book delves into how humans developed the capacity for language.

It's an exhaustive book and hits on the common forms of all languages regardless of the supposed level of sophistication of the speakers. It's very interesting in that he demonstrates how many forms of slang are actually more internally consistent forms of communication than the supposed arbitrary rules of style that all languages try to stick to. But these styles are really moving targets and are no more right than the slang. Many things that start out as slang eventually end up in the language. He really rails against the intellectual snobbery of supposed language experts that have no more claim to what "proper" English is than anyone else does.

The Language Instinct is most engaging when it compares different languages and when it talks about how children progressively pick up language. When it lost me was actually earlier in the book when it talks a bit too much about "phonemes" and "word structures" and so on. It's basically equations for linguists. Just a little too close to feeling like I was back in college.

Another part of the book I like is how he describes that the development of language was just another biological process in humans created by natural selection:

" ... the pains that have been taken to portray language as innate, complex, and useful but not a product of the one force in nature than can make innate complex useful things"

He is, of course, referring to natural selection. Pinker's assertions are in marked contrast to some linguists, like Noam Chomsky, who believe that there is a hard-wired universal grammar among all languages that is a by-product of other adaptations instead of an adaptation in and of itself.

"Since biological systems with signs of complex engineering are unlikely to have arisen from accidents or coincidences, their organization must come from natural selection, and hence should have functions useful for survival and reproduction in the environments in which humans evolved (This does not mean, however, that all aspects of mind are adaptations, or that the mind's adaptations are necessarily beneficial in evolutionarily novel environments like twentieth-century cities)."

So language, and other things that humans do, were processes that in our evolutionary past were useful for our survival. Pinker even speculates about others:

"I would guess that most other human "cultural" practices (competitive sports, narrative literature, landscape design, ballet), no matter how much they seem like arbitrary outcomes of a Borgesian lottery, are clever technologies we have invented to exercise and stimulate mental modules that were originally designed for specific adaptive functions."

All very heady stuff. If you want an introduction to Pinker's work and a little different take on evolution, you could do worse than The Language Instinct. I recommend this book.

"Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground." -- Noah Webster


CyberKitten said...

Interesting. I've read a few books that touch on the development of language but nothing quite this deep. Its a fascinating field.

dbackdad said...

I also have Pinker's The Blank Slate about our innate human nature. I haven't read it yet, but am looking forward to it. I know Dawkins and Dennett are both fans of Pinker.

CyberKitten said...

BTW - Saw District 9 tonight. Fantastic film.

dbackdad said...

So true, so true. One of my top movies for the year.

wunelle said...

I love Pinker! But maybe like you I find at times he wanders into idiot-savant-writing-solely-for-language-fanatics territory. I wonder what it must be like to live in his head.

I read "How the Mind Works," and thought it was spectacular. I have a few other things of his waiting for me on my to-read shelf at home.

dbackdad said...

Wunelle - I definitely need to get that book. I was listening to NPR today and they were talking about Pinker being on All Things Considered to talk about that book. I think it's going to be on sometime next week. As soon as they post it, I'll put a link to the podcast here.