The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
New York: Wm. Morrow, 1994.
Notes by Larry Czer

Ch. 1 An Instinct to Acquire Art Ch. 2 Chatterboxes Ch. 3 Mentalese
Ch. 4 How Language Works Ch. 5 Words, Words, Words Ch. 6 The Sounds of Silence
Ch. 7 Talking Heads Ch. 8 The Tower of Babel Ch. 9 Baby Born Talking--Describes Heaven
Ch. 10 Language Organ and Language Genes Ch. 11Big Bang Ch. 12 Language Mavens
Ch. 13 Mind Design Reading Guide for The Language Instinct

Ch. 1—An Instinct to Acquire Art

Pinker outlines his argument: “Language is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently.” He claims cognitive scientists describe it as psychological faculty, mental organ, neural system, and a computational mode—he prefers “instinct.” Pinker’s main two arguments are the infinite variety of sentence combinations and utterings and the lack of formalized instruction in very young children. He supports Chomsky’s view that language is an evolutionary adaptation.

Ch. 2—Chatterboxes

Pinker claims that children’s use of language in a variety of ways leads him to his conclusions. He cites the practices of plantation Babel, motherese, creolization as means for cildren to invent language when needed. He also decries the imitationist view.

Best quote, citing Max Weinreich: “Language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

Ch. 3—Mentalese

Pinker dissects the issue of linguistic determinism and criticizes the work of Whorf and his language studies. He suggests that one cannot use language to think because its ambiguous, it lacks logical explicitness, co-referencing issues muddle it, and the use of deictic terms. “Indeed if babies did not have mentalese to translate to and from English, it is not clear how learning English could take place, or even what learning English would mean.”

Ch. 4—How Language Works

Pinker discusses how language is a “discrete combinatory system” which incorporates a blending system using a mental dictionary and mental grammar. To support his claim he cites “the sheer vastness of the language,” the infinite number of sentences we are able to produce, and the infinite use of finite media. After a brief discussion of ungrammaticality, he trashes the Markov model or the word chain device for language acquisition. A word chain device is a bunch of lists or prefabricated phrases and a set of directions for going from list to list. Pinker uses the phrase structure rules and diagrams to support his claim. He demonstrates how limiting the traditional grammatical categories are; he even describes verbs as “little despots.” “Grammar offers a clear refutation of the empiricist doctrine that there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.” He concludes: “Grammar is a protocol that has to interconnect the ear, mouth, and the mind, three very different kinds of machines. It cannot be tailored to any of them but must have an abstract logic of its own.”

Memorable quote: “Chomsky’s writings are classics…something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

Ch. 5—Words, Words, Words

Pinker advances his argument by demonstrating the complexity of morphology and the necessary storage of the lexicon as a means for supporting his mental dictionary concept. He points to English’s complexity in inflectional endings, compounding, its affixing capability, and its capacity to invent new words. Pinker defines a word as “a linguistic object that, if built out of parts by the rules of morphology, behaves as the indivisible, smallest unit with respect to the rules of syntax—a syntactic atom.” He concludes: “somehow a baby must intuit the correct meaning of a word and avoid the mind-boggling number of logically impeccable alternatives.”

Interesting stat: Shakespeare 15,000 words; average high school graduate 60,000 words?

Memorable Quote: “Longest word: floccinaucinihilipilification:  the categorizing of something as trivial or worthless.”

Ch. 6—The Sounds of Silence

Pinker expounds on the complexity of the acoustic nature of oral language. He claims speech perception is another one of the biological miracles making up the language instinct. A top-down theory confirms the relativist philosophy that we hear what we expect to hear, that our knowledge determines out perception, and ultimately that we are not in direct contact with any objective reality.” He ends with what he calls a halfhearted defense of English spelling.

Interesting example of language redundancy: yxx cxn xndxrstxnd whxt x xm wrxtxng xf x rxplxcx xll thx vxwxls wxth xn “x.”

Ch. 7—Talking Heads

Pinker advances his argument for human language by demonstrating the shortcomings of “machine” attempts at language production. He claims computers can provide one aspect of language requirement—memory, but fails miserably wit decision-making. He cites sentence embedding as a prime example of shortcomings; he likes embedded sentences to onions or Russian dolls.

Quote: “Language must be structured so that the listener can place each fact into an existing framework.”

Ch. 8—The Tower of Babel

Here Pinker discusses various theories of linguistic diversity and why languages are so unintelligible to each other, yet have vastly similar structures. A search for a proto-language, which he finds suspect, and an overview of historical linguistics are part of the discussion. A universal language instinct might reflect universals of thought or of mental information processing that are not specific to language.” He points again to language’s abstractness and transcendent of time and space. He cites heredity, sources of language variation, and separation among groups of speakers as critical to language evolution. Like Deacon, he maintains that languages are perpetuated by children and that if a language is spoken only by adults, it will eventually die out.

Ch. 9—Baby Born Talking—Describes Heaven

Pinker claims that all infants come into the world with linguistic skills, and he outlines and reviews how fast and vast language learning by young children is. He overviews word acquisition, sentence production, and rule usage by young children. He calls the three-year old a “grammatical genius.” “Language develops about as quickly as the growing brain can handle it.”

Teacher reminder of the day:  “Often the errors follow the logic of grammar so beautifully that the puzzle is not why the children make the errors, but why they sound like errors to adult ears at all.”

Ch. 10—Language Organ and Grammar Genes

Pinker overviews brain regions and brain mapping to find the language center. He uses the impairment studies and dismisses Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas as the grammar center, though they are critical in language use. He maintains a neural networking system. He discusses the DNA search, but the real treat is that we are treated to a couple of examples of the linguistic “genius” of Dan Quayle.

Ch. 11—The Big Bang

Here Pinker admits that Chomsky’s theory of language instinct seems to be incompatible with the Darwinian theory of evolution. Pinker posits natural selection as the primary means. Warning: This chapter includes numerous animal studies and reads a lot like Deacon.

Ch. 12—Language Mavens

Pinker plays the role of answering the differences between rule, grammatical, and ungrammatical. He debunks nine myths of what he calls the “language mavens” of our society. He calls for a more thoughtful discussion on how language is used. He suggests the aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. (He likes Strunk and White and Williams’ Style.)

Ch. 13—Mind Design

Pinker debunks the Standard Social Science Model and biological determinism, and blank slates. He proposes his brain modules theory.

Interesting historical fact quote: “History is written by generals, not mothers.”

Launched July 20, 2001
Project for IUP Psycholinguistics