am 28. Mai 2000
I believe that some of the later reviews of "The Language Instinct" accurately reveal what generally is wrong with the positions taken here by the academic linguists who dismiss the book. Nobody points to the real problem behind these dismissals: not one of these linguists is willing to address the questions that lie at the heart of Chomsky's work in generative grammar and that instigated his work. These questions are (see p. 22, paperback ed.), and they are brilliant questions, never before asked: 1. How can we account for the fact that every human utterance is "is a brand-new combination of words?" 2. How do children, too young for formal instruction, master the essential grammatical structure of their native language? Chomsky's answer came to be generative grammar. The linguists, trapped by the Social Science Model they embrace, do not address these questions because they cannot and have no satisfactory explanation to put in its place. Until they can provide a different theory as powerful as Chomsky's they have no argument, only quibbles.
Yet having said that, I wonder whether Pinker is as successful as the enthusiastic reviews claim. Two kinds of comments, recurrent themes, as it were, suggest this. One criticism is that he presents speculation as fact. I can find not one example in 430 pages. One of the pleasures of reading this book (and it's a rare pleasure these days!) is Pinker's extremely careful use of language and his great care in weighing evidence, pointing out what is fragmentary and inconclusive but suggestive, and in telling us where he is speculating outright (as in chaps. 11 & 13). Why some reviewers misread so badly is related, I believe, to the second kind of objection.
Many complain that Pinker is "dismissive" of other points of view, that he is "unduly slanted," that he has an "agenda." These criticisms are meaningless in this context. Pinker is a scientist, and a scientist who temporizes and makes nothing but conditional statements is not writing science; he is publishing before he is sure of his data and has thought-through his conclusions; he would in fact not be published. Read Darwin's "Origin of Species." It's "slanted"? You bet, and it certainly has an "agenda"! But at the same time these complaints are deeply revealing about our present-day culture. One of Pinker's main points is that an all-pervasive extreme relativism has come to permeate our discourse at all levels. Here it manifests itself , in science, where it is entirely inappropriate: as the usual PC dogmas "Don't confront! Never dismiss! Somebody might be offended!" That way madness lies. That some reviewers failed to see that these kinds of responses were precisely what he is arguing against suggests that he may not have succeeded fully.
Finally, and briefly, one reviewer DOES attempt to confront Pinker on his own grounds, by suggesting that the adequacy of any theory can be tested by posing counterexamples. The problem is that his own examples counter nothing Pinker says. The first is impossible: "Yes, he's." Simply try to SAY that and the impossibility of that contraction is clear. One expects a completer (here; there; guilty, etc.). The second strains credulity: Anyone who is impolite enough to answer my phone call with a rude "Who's it?" produces instant confusion and a slamming hang-up. Unless . . . suppose the answerer is not in his office at the college but at home with an unlisted number. Then the likelihood is that the caller is friend, family, an intimate who recognizes this as a deliberately humorous, idiosyncratic, "in" way of saying "Hello," much as we use the words "whosis" and "whatsis" in informal situations. But these are intelligible ONLY because the standard, uncontracted forms are known in the first place.
Pinker's book is a powerful and important piece of work. Among other things, it argues subtly for the return of reasoned judgment to our everything-goes public discourse.
am 22. Mai 2000
I find it hard to believe sometimes that Stephen Pinker teaches at MIT. You mean some scientists do actually have a sense of humor? Anyone who reads this book had better have a great sense of humor, a love of the absurd, and a desire to really understand language. I'm in Science Education, not linguistics, but because I am deaf and studying how deaf people learn, it ends up with a lot of linguistic study in it. Usually the books from this lot of scientists are mind-boggling hard to get through, but not Mr. Pinker. If he teaches like he writes, then he must be a heck of a teacher! Mr. Pinker is also one of the few linguists who aren't devoted to ASL studies who includes information about American Sign Language that makes it clear that it is a real language in its own right. That alone would endear Dr. Pinker to the Deaf culture. This books takes all those difficult concepts concerning the innateness of language, and conveys them to the layman in an easy-to-understand way. He is never patronizing and always funny. I enjoy reading the book, which I often have to do since I use it in my papers a lot. To say Dr. Pinker's book is brilliant is a statement of fact. It's too bad some scientists in other fields couldn't take a cue from him and get a sense of humor! Karen L. Sadler Science Education, University of Pittsburgh, email@example.com
am 31. Oktober 1998
Pinker sure is an engaging writer, and his varied pop culture references demonstrate that he is no dry academic. But beware that he also makes a living on misrepresentating "facts." For example, he discusses a deaf child with deaf parents, claiming that the child, whose parents learned Ameslan late in life, used his "language faculty" to correctly deduce the "right" grammar from his parents faulty data. This is highly misleading: in fact, the child still showed a good amount of error, and there was a strong correlation between the percentage of ungrammatical utterances from his parents and the child's. The higher their error rate, the higher the child's. So all the study really showed was that brains are excellent at finding patterns in a mess of data, *not* that the alleged LAD is a factor in fixing the child's syntax, as suggested by principles & parameters theory. But you won't get the whole story from Pinker. In fact, you get what seems to be a purposefully misleading one.
A couple other minor quibbles. First, the phrase structure grammar Pinker tentatively outlines is like none I've ever seen, or that any linguist would accept. I suspect that's because Pinker was trying to make PSG look more presentable and "natural" than the real thing. Then there's his statement: "Language is no more a social construct than walking." Basically, he uses this outrageous and unsupported comparison to toss out any functional or social aspect of a theory of language. This all stems from the rationalist ideal of social theories completely divorced from the environment they take place in.
Of course, for a staunch supporter of the Cartesian Chomsky, also at MIT, none of this is really surprising. It's just a shame so many people are taken in by it.
Finally, note that Pinker is not a linguist, as many people (at least one reviewer, anyway) seem to believe. He is a cognitive psychologist whose main focus often seems to be in linguistics.
am 12. Dezember 1997
If you like lucid, entertaining, highly informative books on science, written by the scientists themselves, you must read this book. This is one of those books that makes me want to raid its bibliography, to learn so much more in greater detail. Not that Pinker doesn't provide detail. It's just that the subjects are so fascinating, and he surveys so many of them. I all of a sudden want to know more about aphasics, sign languages, hominid evolution, Chomskyan grammars, child development, "creole" languages, patients with Williams syndrome, evolutionary psychology, bonobos, and, believe it or not, the evolution of elephants. I am also eager to find rebuttals to his primary thesis--that language is an instinct of humans--precisely because he makes such a convincing case. A book that both William F. Buckley and Noam Chomsky can praise has got to be exceptional.
am 28. Oktober 1999
For the educated layperson, this book is the most fascinating and engaging introduction to linguistics I have come across. I know some college students who had received xeroxed handouts of one chapter from this book, and these were students who were just bored of reading handouts week after week... but after reading just a few paragraphs from The Language Instinct, they were hooked, fascinated, and really wanted to read the whole book (and did). I wish I had come across such a book years ago...
If you've wished you'd taken linguistics, and never did, get this book. This one book will do it for you! Pinker is intelligent, but more importantly is a master of illustrative examples for the layperson. However, the text is never "dumbed-down" and can be a challenge to any reader.
I've read some of the other readers' reviews... unfortunately some focus more on applying academic thought-criticisims of his nativist viewpoint. Certainly, if you are coming from an academic bent, yes, I would agree that it would be a gross misrepresentation to say that Pinker presents the definitive state of the art in linguistics, or that all linguists think like he does... in fact, the critical reviewers are right, Pinker is but one linguist in one theoretical camp, the "nativist" camp, i.e. the theory that genes drive language and its acquisition in a task-specific manner. But so what? Pinker's theory is not what drives enjoyment of the book; it's the enthusiasm and skill with which he can introduce any reader to the topic of the study of language! : It's not dry! It's fun!
His viewpoint is already apparent by the title; the true value of this gem of a book is for introducing to the layperson LINGUISTICS and the depth of the kinds of questions that can be asked about language... these questions can be "beautiful," and certainly most readers would not have thought of these issues themselves, yet after Pinker's examples, it all makes wonderful sense, and is memorable and lucid. Whether or not the reader agrees with Pinker after becoming sophisticated upon further readings is not relevant; without The Language Instinct, Pinker's engaging introduction to the field, many would never wish to become linguistically sophisticated in the first place!
The sort of reader who should pay attention to the specific thought-criticisms of some of the other reviewers should really be elsewhere, reading and critiquing Pinker's academic works, e.g. journal articles, or his book "Language Learnability and Language Development," not nitpicking a book meant for introducing the masses to the beauty of language! If you aren't a linguist, I would hazard that the majority of potential readers are safe to completely ignore these thought-criticisms when pondering their potential enjoyment of purchasing this book from Amazon.
These critical reviewers should be reading/writing journal articles in the academic literature! However if you are in the grey area of reading this book for an academic reason not strictly defined as Linguistics, these specific thought-criticisms are valid to take note of and to consider-- I would concede that some niches of academics (e.g. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh of chimpanzee artificial language) may be taking The Language Instinct text, a book for the layperson, as an academic gospel of the entire field of Linguistics, without really considering the underlying technical issues or counterarguments.
Overall, you likely won't find another book which presents the beauty & complexity of language with the ease of The Language Instinct. If you are to have but one book in your library on language, this should be the one.
am 27. Oktober 1999
You ought to ignore the less-stellar reviews here; they're obviously written by experts dissatisfied with Dr. Pinker's conclusions, people who probably have grants at stake, and are not written by the audience this book speaks best to.
And it speaks *beautifully*. If you're not professionally involved in the more technical aspects of the debates explored here, if you couldn't care less about ending sentences with prepositions but don't know why others would, and you have a pulse, you're bound to enjoy this brilliant introduction to linguistics, which also illustrates fascinating points about literature, neurology, genetics, evolution, class systems, history, children, baseball and crossword puzzles. (whew.) Rife with pop culture references (who could quote Dorothy Parker, Dan Quayle, Bob Dylan and Shakespeare successfully but this man, who admits to loving the word "diss" and disliking "whom"?), this book will keep you from reading your next few copies of both Reader's Digest and the New Yorker; you could even toss the Bach tapes you play for your 4-year-olds and just read them this at bedtime. And, you know, that's a good thing.
"I have never met a person who is not interested in language," Dr. Pinker begins. No other instinct more steadily binds us and defines us as human, and no other book has poured so much cool information into such spellbinding writing as this one. Dr. Pinker, take another bow. There are roses waiting in the green room.
am 31. Juli 1999
A well written a quite readable book.
Pinker's (and by extension, Chomsky's) evidence for Universal Grammar has been disputed by professional linguists for decades. Actually, for a thinking individual, coming up with counter-examples - which are sometimes quite easily produced - makes one wonder just how seriously anyone should take the nativist claims. For a short example (since this forum is not meant to be a forum for academic rebutal) on p. 30: Pinker claims a speaker of Standard American English (SAE) would never try the following contractions:
Yes he is! -> Yes he's!
I don't care what you are -> I don't care what you're.
Who is it? -> Who's it?
Pinker hints that one does not find these contractions in SAE since they violate rules of Universal Grammar which are part of the bioligical make-up of the mind! How astonishing, since I always thought the much more simple and elegant explanation would be that one does not contract a word which one wants to emphasize - in the first case, "Yes, he is!" is an affirmation of something previously thought not to be the case, and as such the "is" gets re-affirmed and highlighted.
But of course, I am a speaker of SAE, and didn't find the third example to sound that odd (Who's it?) Since I say it all the time when someone calls and someone else answers the phone and tells me that the phone is for me. Or if the phone isn't for me, I often ask "Who's that?"
I would suggest any reader, who takes the time, can come up with several counter examples on their own. Such as: Where is that? -> Where's that? --
In this case, and so many others presented in "The Language Instinct" Pinker presents only the positive side of the debate, many times leaving out the details, since he knows full well the devil resides there!
For a populist account (and a very readable one, I may add, beats Chomsky's, "Language and Problems of Knowledge" in readability by a LONG SHOT!) "The Language Instinct" is a good read. However, if one is going to limit his or herself to reading popular accounts rather than the arguments of profesional linguists, I highly recommend the short and equally readable rebutal by the British scholoar, Geoffrey Sampson, "Educating Eve"
In conclusion: The claim that humans have language genes which impose an underlying grammar on all human languages (both present and extinct) is a bold claim. In my opinion, the evidence does not follow from ANYTHING offered by Pinker or any of his nativist colleges, or by the head master himself, Noam Chomsky. Certainly such claims should be taken with the same seriousness and skepticism as claims about intellegence being racially determined. Whereas the former is a rather innocuous belief and the later not- the evalutation of the claims should be equally rigourous.
The book is well written and readable, but after you have read it, read "Educating Eve" if you still have reservations or simply want to get another view!
Sincerly Kent Slinker
am 17. Februar 1999
This is a superb introduction to generative linguistics (both phonology and syntax). Pinker has successfully simplified most of the complex methodological and notational issues to make these somewhat opaque fields more accessible to lay readers. As such, this is an ideal introductory text and a good reference for linguistic types who have had to forego the Ivory Tower but who want to keep their feet wet. What this text is not is an advanced, graduate-level text--and so don't expect that. If you've read any other book on generative theory (or better yet, minimalist theory), this book is backstepping. (Note that the negative reviewers of this title are also showing off how "advanced" they are--thereby missing the very point to this text!) On the other hand, if you're fascinated by language at all, no matter the reason, you owe it to yourself to try this text out. I have colleagues in non-linguistics fields of study (particularly literature) who don't understand why language isn't static, why the idea of "grammaticality" changes over time--or that Black Vernacular English and Sign Language are as well grammared as "standard" English. If you've been curious about any of these issues or more--buy and read "The Language Instinct."
am 26. Februar 1999
Before Pinker's ego spun completely out of control in _How the Mind Works_, we got a slightly less ambitious, and in many ways laudable, book in the form of _The Language Instinct_. Pinker has no scruples: he doesn't care how entertaining he is.
The highlights of this book are what linguists have been saying ever since Bloomfield: language change is natural, there's no such thing as "right" or "wrong" grammar or pronunciation, only what is conventional, and so on. It's encouraging to see someone, even a non-linguist, writing a book that says that kind of thing.
As an outline of generative linguistics or, more specifically, Chomskyan linguistics with all its psychological baggage (innateness and all that), it's decent. I must admit seeing the same old stuff rehashed nearly prompted me to give up here and there, but that won't be a problem for neophytes.
Still, "best introduction to generative grammar out there"? Ugh. God save us. The "hurrahs" and one-sided nature of this book, which bothered reviewers even in pro-Chomsky journals, will, I think, give readers a biased opinion about what linguistics is about and, more important, what linguists think they know. (Pinker has a penchant for claiming we know more than we actually do.) Whatever happened to encouraging skepticism and the tentative nature of scientific claims?
The last chapter is interesting, as Pinker, all the while admitting that people will think he's nuts, outlines an outrageously nativist theory of the mind, a precursor to _How the Mind Works_. Pinker practically says that genes determine how long you suck your thumb (I wonder what held him back). Well, you were right, Pinker, some of us think you're a little nuts.
Amusing, informative, yes. In the meantime, some of us are waiting for someone in the Langacker/Lakoff camp who can actually write...
(To the well-meaning but misinformed reader who accused the "professionals in the field" of being "threatened by his insights": You're about thirty years late. Pinker's "insights" have been orthodox, especially on the East Coast, for a long time.)
am 7. Oktober 1996
The scope of this book is one which is close to everybody's heart -- how we can communicate.
It represents a completely refreshing and extremely informative and comprehensive exploration of how it is that humans can speak, and speak so well.
Remember the one about how Eskimos have 40 words for snow? It turns out to be junk! I for one was was of the many millions who believed this without question.
Pinker manages to debunk many similar `urban myths' -- a very refreshing `reality check'.
Pinker's main message is very simple, and yet very powerful. The human mind is not composed of a blank slate upon which language, skills and wisdom are written. Nor are we general purpose computers waiting for the right program to be downloaded. Instead, humans come into the world with a large proportion of these already pre-wired. What we have in our brain is a finite collection of precursor programs that enable us to learn language and enable us to make use of the world we are in.
This is in a way not news to most parents who can observe that their children have innate differences that environment could not have determined.
But it is definitely news to many Social Scientists, Educationalists, and people Pinker refers to as `language mavens' (language pundits).
However, I think the largest long-term implications will relate to how humans come to terms with the world, its plants and animals and with other peoples.
An important book, which is also very well written. I could hardly put it down!