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There s a joke in this book that linguists really like An English woman has just got off the plane at Boston s Logan airport She takes a cab, and starts questioning the driver about where to obtain various local delicacies Oh yes, she says in her posh English accent Could you tell me where you can get scrod here And the driver replies, You know, you don t often hear that in the pluperfect subjunctive Another linguist joke, for people who haven t already heard it The guy is visiting the university, and managed to get himself thoroughly lost He goes up to an academic looking type and asks politely, Excuse me, do you know which building the linguistics department is in It s generally considered incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition replies the academic I m sorry says the visitor I mean, do you know which building the linguistics department is in, asshole An American grad student and a German grad student are talking about their dissertations I ve nearly finished mine, boasts the German It s in four volumes Wow says the American, impressed What are they Well, says the German The first one is the background, the second is the experiments, and the third is the analysis What about the fourth asks the American Oh That s just the verbs You may need to know something about German word order to find this amusing It s the day after the Great Vowel Shift, and this guy goes into a bar Can I have an ale he asks And the barman replies, I m sorry sir, the fishmonger is next door I wondered where the Great Vowel Shift Joke came from, and how could I not have guessed it turns out to be the work of the late, much lamented James D McCawley Specifically, it comes from his piece Linguistically Noteworthy Dates in May , which I reproduce here for your delectation May 2, 1919 Baudouin de Courtenay concedes defeat in his bid for the presidency of Poland May 3, 1955 Mouton Co discover how American libraries order books and scheme to cash in by starting several series of books on limericks The person given charge of this project mishears and starts several series of books on linguistics No one ever notices the mistake May 5, 1403 The Great English Vowel Shift begins Giles of Tottenham calls for ale at his favorite pub and is perplexed when the barmaid tells him that the fishmonger is next door May 6, 1939 The University of Chicago trades Leonard Bloomfield to Yale University for two janitors and an undisclosed number of concrete gargoyles.May 7, 1966 r less pronunciation is observed in eight kindergarten pupils in Secaucus, N.J The governor of New Jersey stations national guardsmen along the banks of the Hudson May 9, 1917 N Ja Marr discovers ROSH, the missing link for Japhetic unity May 11, 1032 Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II orders isoglosses erected across northern Germany as defense against Viking intruders May 12, 1965 Sydney Lamb announces discovery of the hypersememic stratum, setting off a wave of selling on the NYSE May 13 Vowel Day Public holiday in Kabardian Autonomous Region The ceremonial vowel is pronounced by all Kabardians as a symbol of brotherhood with all speakers of human languages May 14, 519 B.C Birth of Panini May 15, 1964 J Katz and J Fodor are separated in 5 hour surgery from which neither recovers May 17, 1966 J R Ross tells a clean joke May 18, 1941 Quang Phuc Dong is captured by the Japanese and interned for the duration of hostilities May 19 Diphthong Day Public holiday in Australia May 20, 473 B.C Publisher returns to Panini a manuscript entitled Saptadhyayi with a note requesting the addition of a chapter on phonology Panini begins struggling to meet the publisher s deadline May 21, 1962 First mention of The Sound Pattern of English as in press May 23, 38,471 B.C God creates language May 26, 1945 Zellig Harris applies his newly formulated discovery procedures and discovers t May 27, 1969 George Lakoff discovers the global rule Supermarkets in Cambridge, Mass are struck by frenzied buying of canned goods May 29, 1962 Angular brackets are discovered Classes at M.I.T are dismissed and much Latvian plum brandy is consumed May 30, 1939 Charles F Hockett finishes composing the music for the Linguistic Society of America s anthem, Can You Hear the Difference May 31, 1951 Chomsky discovers Affix hopping and is reprimanded by his father for discovering rules on shabas. The Classic Book On The Development Of Human Language By The World S Leading Expert On Language And The MindIn This Classic, The World S Expert On Language And Mind Lucidly Explains Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Language How It Works, How Children Learn It, How It Changes, How The Brain Computes It, And How It Evolved With Deft Use Of Examples Of Humor And Wordplay, Steven Pinker Weaves Our Vast Knowledge Of Language Into A Compelling Story Language Is A Human Instinct, Wired Into Our Brains By Evolution The Language Instinct Received The William James Book Prize From The American Psychological Association And The Public Interest Award From The Linguistics Society Of America This Edition Includes An Update On Advances In The Science Of Language Since The Language Instinct Was First Published I have this incredible mental block about reviewing nonfiction My formal linguistics experience is limited to exactly one History of the English Language class as a college junior and it remains one of the most fascinating, satisfying and illuminating classroom experiences I ve ever had, university level or otherwise , which was about when I realized that the study of language was up there with the school paper and my creative writing courses in terms of the all over fulfillment I found in it It helped that I had an enthusiastic professor whose wealth of knowledge and general zeal turned my disappointment in the English department s lack of additional linguistic offerings into a fervent hunt for extracurricular reading material regarding the topic, though I can t help but feel that my self guided tour through the field isn t yielding the same benefits I d ve received from exploring the same terrain with an expert leading the way Hence my concern that I ll sound like I m trying to pretend that I know what I m talking about on some deeper level when my background in the roots of language is farrecreational than academic All s I can say for sure is that The Language Instinct was great fun, beautifully written and an absolute whirlwind of information that covers a dizzying array of unexpected but thought provokingly relevant subjects.Oh, and that Steven Pinker has the most admirably disheveled hair since Georges Perec Their locks are not to be trifled with, nor, clearly, are their minds The last language centric book I read argued in favor of a point that had been laughed into noncredibility for years thanks to the implied racism it still carried from the Sapir Whorf hypothesis days, which is that the world actually looks different based on one s view of the world based on his or her culture and language Through the Language Glass, written by Guy Deutscher and published in 2010 and which I must admit to having read long enough ago that I have shamefully forgotten many of its finer details but do recall as having made a rather convincing argument, as it delved into stuff such as how a language can reflect a culture s attitude toward its women an hypothesis that Pinker decried within the first 50 pages of this 1994 bestseller as wrong, all wrong, as it is his view that discussions that assume that language determines thought carry on only by a collective suspension of disbelief My copy of The Language Instinct includes Pinker s chapter by chapter asides about updates in the many areas he explored in a book he publishedthan two decades ago, including the neo Whorfism that has sprung up in recent years, a revival that allowed works such as Through the Language Glass to be takenseriously because the misguided blinders and red herrings of the linguistic avenue of contemplation have finally fallen away and its points can be made in such a way to sidestep the unfortunate pitfalls of the past.Seeing the inverse of an argument made just as successfully as my initial exposure to it was what sucked me in for good with this book The overlapping of an argument s two sides and seeing familiar names, familiar backgrounds, familiar failings and completely different conclusions were all strangely rewarding payoffs for my own curious, solitary explorations And that spark of recognition just kept cropping up in myriad forms as I read on and on and on and on, as it took me, like, two months to finish this absolutely no fault of Pinker s, but rather that of my compulsion to juggle two and three books at once and work s nasty habit of reducing my reading time in two week cycles While the biology and neurobiology and child development and abnormal psych were all a bit of alien territory for me, Pinker presented them all in such accessible ways that my tactile learner self was picking up everything he was putting down Which made the friendlier faces I d seen before all theinviting The progression of Old English to Middle English to Modern English was like having tea or mead with an old friend, reading about the Great Vowel Shift was like reminiscing with an old lover and wondering if maybe the stars are finally aligned in our favor, the uncanny commonalities between seemingly unrelated tongues was a kiddie ball pit wrapped in a trampoline for my brain, and the pages and chapters of grammatical theory Be still, my pedantic heart I didn t even mind, as a happily neurotic proofreader, when Pinker started asserting that maybe the Grammar Mavens have their priorities all wrong, that even nontraditional dialects have their merits, that whom ought to go the way of ye and its other equally antiquated brethren, that it s okay to hang on to the rules of usage for clarity s sake rather than browbeating those poor folks who don t work themselves into paroxysms of glee at the very notion of sentence diagrams over their truly nitpicky transgressions I had no idea the lengths and detail necessary in asserting that something so mind bogglingly complex but is so universally taken for granted that is, human speech is a deep seated biological impulse, hard wired into our brains to the point that we are all, in fact, baby geniuses when it comes to sussing out most of the nuances of our diabolically tricky native languages by the age of three I had no well formed opinion on the matter of language as a learned habit versus a communicative imperative instilled in us via evolution before coming into this but did Pinker ever reel me in, hold my attention and make me want to delve deeper into his research, theories and positions regarding the language instinct Bearing witness to the impressive lengths he goes to to cover all his ground from every angle is reward enough for hearing him out for nearly 500 pages, because Pinker s dedication to the language instinct is evident enough in the miles of homework he did to make his point with armfuls of wide ranging detail and chapter upon chapter of some truly compelling writing. A friend, a diplomat s daughter, when asked how she had managed to master Dutch when she went to a school in Suriname, shrugged I don t know I remember being so confused during the first day, not understanding a single word But not so long after that, I was able to speak in Dutch I just spoke, I don t know how That had happened years ago, when she was still very young We have always wondered how come children are able to learn language easily, while many, if not most adults, find the task of learning a new language bewildering, bordering with the impossible Plus, children are not just great imitators If they were, we would only be repeating things our parents had told us when we were small But we don t We don t just mimic our parents words Something in our neural circuitry doesthan just copying it analyses grammar, it finds for pattern, it composes new combination of words frighteningly complex processes that, so far, cannot even be matched by the most advanced of AI C3PO is still a long way to go.The ability of learning language is one of the many subjects covered by the book The Language Instinct, written by Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist in Harvard No, he s not some crazy linguist who enjoys slaying people Language is probably the hallmark of human race We boast our ability to communicate in words, a feature of our culture that no other living forms have But Pinker shows us that far from being a cultural invention, language is actually an instinct And because it is, then despite the doubts of the likes of Chomsky, it must be built gradually in the lineages one of which led to us thanks to natural selection Aiming towards the goal of convincing us about that main point of language being an instinct, Pinker wove an abundance of evidence into this clear, mostly easy to swallow book I said most, because to be frank at times I was lost among a wealth of linguistic terms that I had to crawl through, trying to just grab the general point of some parts.Nevertheless, I like Pinker s book for dissecting language thoroughly My favourite part is of course about the language mavens people who think they have the task to safeguard the purity of language and grammar Pinker showed us that many instances of ungrammatical words or sentences according to those mavens, are actually grammatical according to how our brain works Very enlightening, especially for someone like me who has for quite some time lost her faith in the tyranny of KBBI and EYD of the Indonesian language Our own language mavens, for instance, would waste their sweat telling us that the correct spelling for lembab is lembap , though you understand that both mean the same anyway, and that you may not speak of jam delapan , but pukul delapan instead But hey, if this sounds like telling us to ditch our dictionaries and standard spellings and pronunciation altogether, what am I doing, writing something in what, I hope, is a neat piece of review, instead 0f sumth1n l1k3 d33s You might even notice that I even care to hit the spacebar twice after a period, but only once after a comma Well, when I talk with my sister and brother, or with my bestfriends, sometimes we use words and phrases only we understand I wager none of you know what an exedol is Sometimes we don t even have to finish our sentences Our experience together has created specific words and phrases and shaped the language that we use when we communicate with each other But, when I write something, keeping a general reader in mind, I must be careful to use words and phrases most, if not all, readers would understand, presenting my thought clearly, preventing misunderstanding or confusion except if that is exactly my intention, but Joyce I am not Hence my writing style but trust me, in verbal communication, I might sound very, very different.Language is farinteresting than filling up blanks on a question sheet with the right form of verbs, and Steven Pinker has a way of revealing to us how amazing our language and our brain are. I had The Language Instinct How the Mind Creates Language out of the library for the entire summer I finally finished it by actively reading it on the train for a couple of weeks It s interesting, don t get me wrong, it s just LONG and has enough dull confusing stretches that I couldn t bring myself to read it in my free time it was pretty much a train only book.The book s underlying claim is that all human beings are born with something Pinker calls a Universal Grammar, which causes us to acquire language instinctively Whether we are born into an English or Kinyarwandan or sign language community affects only the details of our language acquisition we are wired to understand the way language works.He makes many good points, and I learned a lot from reading this book, but something underlying the text was somewhat disturbing to me and it s not just the way he seems to revere Noam Chomsky as a god, quoting him earnestly and often, and almost overemphasizing the one point where he disagrees with Chomsky as if to say, Look, all you people who think I m just digesting Chomsky for the masses I DO have my own thoughts So there It s that Pinker is 100% an objectivist, believing that our language and culture don t really affect the underlying processes in our minds and that human beings are ultimately the same, whereas I can t see the world without some degree of relativity slipping in, thinking that we are all very very similar and are justified in acting as if we are all the same, but that there are subtle differences that we may not entirely be able to overcome I think lanugage, at least to a small degree, does affect the way we think and process the world, even if the differences are mostly ones we can see past or work around when talking with others from a different language background I laughed every time I turned the book over and saw the quote on the back from William F Buckley, Jr Steven Pinker is, I think, engagingly wrong in some of his conclusions, but the operative word here is engagingly He reminds us of the pleasures of reading about language, provided people like him are at the wheel A few details I really enjoyed about this book Case studies and quotes from people with various neurological disorders affecting their language abilities The detail to which Pinker addressed sign languages, showing how language acquisition follows the same steps whether it is spoken or gestured deaf babies babble with their hands at the same age that hearing babies babble with their mouths The linguistics primers, which had me making phoneme sounds and sticking my finger in my mouth to see how my tongue and lips were arranged while on the train Reasons why the language mavens people who bemoan the decline of English are often wrong This is definitely a worthwhile read if you re interested in linguistics but haven t studied much on the topic yet There s a lot of value in this book, even though some passages do get overwhelmingly dry or pedantic pages of sentence diagramming scattered throughout the book, for example I wouldn t recommend it to a casual reader, since I kind of had to will myself to finish reading the book, but I do think I learned a lot for sticking it out. Steven Pinker and I should be natural enemies He s a representative of what I consider to be the smarmy, science precludes all else school of hung up modernist reductionists, while I fly the flag of what he considers to be the wishy washy, Nietzsche damaged academic Left And yet it s difficult for me not to have some respect for his project.When he s not making potshots at relativism s , he is generally quite lucid and charming, and throughout writes with a clear, approachable logic By cogitating on the structure of Creole languages and the speech patterns of aphasics, he makes a very, very strong case for a universal grammar While there are suggestions that certain features of universal aren t present in some languages, it seems to be a reasonable hypothesis I will say, as an arch empiricist and an arch skeptic, that there s a very strong chance that grammatical structures quite likely have a social rather than a strictly evolutionary basis, but the idea is certainly thought provoking And, importantly for us moody relativists, he has convinced me in a way that Peter Singer totally didn t of the democratic potential of the notion of innate human nature I do feel that he utilizes a certain circular logic In Pinker s view, morphemes fit into the framework of syntax, and therefore language is innate What is a morpheme Something that fits into the framework of syntax Also, he largely relies on generalizations rather than universals.Oh, and he claims signifiers are arbitrary, even in the case of onomatopoeia And yet he tries to claim that certain signifiers are non arbitrary because we evolved in certain ways This is just a glaring example that implies, to me, that Pinker used his data to fit his conclusion Bad science booohissss.But while these problems call into question his work and method, it s still a work I have the utmost respect for, and that everyone interested in language, whether liquored up French deconstructionist or icy positivist, needs to read. Previously, I had read Steven Pinker s The Stuff of Thought , which is also an excellent book I enjoyed that book, so I next read this one and I m glad I did The Language Instinct is an absolutely fascinating book The author presents some very convincing arguments, that the acquisition of language is an instinct that has evolved over many generations, through natural selection Steven Pinker is right on the money, when it comes to his analysis of evolution Every chapter is compelling, and each chapter investigates language from a different perspective In both this book, and in The Stuff of Thought , Pinker investigates why so many seemingly irregular word usages are not irregular at all Often we instinctively use words and phrases that seem illogical, just because it sounds right Pinker shows the logic underlying the usage and each time, I just have to say, oh my gosh of course In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote, Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write The experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker, took this quote as the inspiration for his book on what he considers the idea that there exists an innate language instinct to be found across all cultures Elaborating on the canonical linguistic ideas of Noam Chomsky, particularly in regard to Chomsky s Universal Grammar, Pinker presents the lay reader with numerous examples of how language acquisition, grammatical comprehension, and the tendency to speak, are all aspects of an innate linguistic tendency that human beings share, regardless of cultural background or specific language.Though Pinker generally agrees with Chomsky s work on Universal Grammar, The Language Instinct focuses primarily on the idea that thoughts create language, a mental process that Pinker refers to as mentalese This theoretical linguistic perspective is diametric to that of the Whorf Sapir hypothesis, which suggests that language determines thought, and that the particular culture one belongs to is unique, in turn greatly affecting the way that a person communicates, utilizes language, and ultimately, perceives the world around them.In Chapter one, entitled An Instinct to Acquire an Art , Pinker covers the two opposing linguistic schools, and talks about Chomsky and his research on Universal grammar Pinker begins his polemic on Whorfian claims about language coloring in human perspective by discussing Chomsky s skepticism, concerning not merely the Whorf Sapir hypothesis, but the Standard Social Science Model SSCM in general Pinker, siding with Chomsky, feels that, not only is the Whorf Sapir hypothesis wrong, but the basic intellectual stance that the human psyche is molded by the surrounding culture , is a dramatic misconception inspired by the SSCM However, as we see later in the book, Pinker will part ways with Chomsky, ideologically Though they both feel that grammar is a discrete combinatorial system and is also a soundly structured tool with words and rules that human beings have an innate tendency to acquire, Chomsky is apprehensive about whether or not this language instinct, or gene, is part of the process of evolutionary adaptation Pinker feels that the language instinct is similar to the human eye in that it has the appearance of design In other words, the eye, for human beings, is a tool engineered with a very specific purpose It has the appearance of design, and elements of an engineered tool, just like a camera, or an engine The significant point that Pinker does take from Chomsky s work is his claim that the same symbol manipulating machinery, without exception, underlies the world s languages A chapter by chapter synopsis of a book of such layered complexity would become tedious after chapter 5 Everything from Broca s Aphasia which can cause language impairment , to x bar theory a theoretical version of phrase structure proposed by Chomsky that compares common grammatical rules and structures across different languages , artificial intelligence, prescriptive vs descriptive grammar, and language organs and grammar genes, is covered in this erudite defense of Universal Grammar These examples are useful to Pinker because they assist him in elucidating his rational stance on a language of thought Logic heavy gems such as, And if there can be two thoughts corresponding to one word, thoughts can t be words , are peppered throughout the book When he talks about x bar theory, he explains how, A part of speech, then, is not a kind of meaning it is a kind of token that obeys certain formal rules, like a chess piece or a poker chip Pinker s strongest arguments for a Universal Grammar or a language of thought, primarily concern phrase structure within sentences Chomsky laid much of the ground on syntactic structures in his linguistic work in the 1960 s But Pinker sees grammar as a technical aspect of language that offers a clear refutation of the empiricist doctrine that there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses So, again, the book is covering a lot of linguistic ground concerning academic debates about what language essentially is, but for Pinker, an unabashed devotee of Darwin, The Language Instinct is also about how language is an innate tendency that undergoes evolutionary adaptive processes He disagrees with the Whorfians and cultural relativists in the sense that he sees grammatical comprehension and language acquisition as innate tendencies It s not that he disagrees with the claim that culture can occasionally influence how people speak, or the way a language sounds Pinker simply believes that there is a common capacity for speech and language utilization across all cultures, and it s not that different Again, he refers to the apparent design of language toward the end of chapter 10, entitled Language Organs and Grammar Genes , when he reflects, I would expect the basic design of language, from x bar syntax to phonological rules and vocabulary structure to be uniform across the species how else could children learn to talk and adults understand one another In the academic arena of linguistics, this debate between people arguing that language is an innate instinct and those that feel that language influences thought is slightly less prominent than it was in the past In example, one of the strongest claims supporting the Whorf Sapir hypothesis is that the speakers of the Piraha tribe of South America were incapable of using recursion inserting embedded clauses within sentences ad infinitum in their language In 2004, Peter Gordon conducted an experiment consisting of various counting exercises in order to determine whether or not the Piraha were capable of counting exact cardinalities He concluded that the Piraha had numbers for one, few, and many, but were incapable of remembering large exact numbers Gordon s experimental design was relatively crude, and he merely concluded that the Piraha couldn t count that well under the conditions of the experiment Since then, the linguist Andrew Nevins, along with his colleagues concluded that Piraha does allow for some recursive embedding using verb suffixes and conversions of nouns to verbs It is also possible to conjoin propositions within a sentence, such as We ate a lot of the fish, but there was some fish that we did not eat The debunking of linguistic myths such as the apparent absence of recursion in the Piraha language, are concrete proof that Pinker is on to something profound when he suggests an underlying linguistic design in human nature.One might argue that, throughout The Language Instinct, Pinker attempts to insert too many anecdotes from technical linguistics as well as from popular culture The Language Instinct was one of Pinker s first popular science books This onslaught of information is understandable as he is a trained experimental psychologist trying to make technical linguistic explanations understandable to a lay audience He does so with flying colors There is also his Darwinist bent, along with the genetic approach to language research, which many traditional linguists especially academic Whorfians, clearly might find a little too reductionist What stands out in this wonderfully informative book is Pinker s basic, non threatening theoretical stance that language is part of an adaptive process in nature There may be notable superficial distinctions across different languages, but the basic structure of language and its apparent design is something that is utilized across all cultures, regardless of location, history, or linguistic origin For Pinker, culture is not to be devalued or overlooked, but when lost in the cacophonous babel of world languages he opines, I imagine seeing through the rhythms to the structures underneath, and sense that we all have the same minds. A highly interesting book about how language came about in the human mind It gets quite technical at times, but that s an added bonus for anyone who is truly interested in the subject. Interesting for its discussion of language and language acquisition But too many people take Pinker s word as gospel, when in fact his theories are quite controversial This book also bears a lot of responsibility for the rise of pop EvPsych Evolutionary psychology is a field that has a few worthwhile observations mixed with an awful lot of BS used to justify all sorts of learned behavior So, read this book with a very large grain of salt.