Friday, March 11, 2011

On "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker ***

The first of ten or so books I'll be reading about psycholinguistics--the study of language and its relationship to the brain--is a good introduction to the various subissues that arise: where language comes from, how we learn language, why some people have problems with language, to what degree do animals have language, and so on. Pinker, a linguist, approaches the topic mostly with regard to grammar. His point: that the human mind has a language instinct, or to put it in slightly more precise words: that human beings have an underlying impulse toward speaking grammatically. We do this without the help of teachers or of parents. If we exist among other people, then as babies, we are indoctrinated into the world of grammatical language, whether that be nonstandard English or classical French.

I found much of this book immensely interesting. The first two chapters, which are mostly theoretical and lay out Pinker's argument, were the most intriguing. Later chapters also have a lot to offer. Unfortunately, chapters 3 and 4--the chapters where Pinker really lets loose with the sentence diagramming--were a bit much for me. I enjoy diagramming a sentence, but I'm not too inclined to read about it or to see someone else do it, over and over and over. To liven things up, Pinker brings in zany examples from e-mails and tabloid newspaper headlines, which seemed usually, to me, like a gloss. "I know you're bored, so here's some tangential materials that you might find funny to sort of help me make my point." I could have done with shorter chapters.

But this is a quibble. After chapter 4, things picked up again for me, and there were another seven chapters to go. In those early chapters, Pinker lays out one basic point, which was interesting to see explored. He does not believe, as some theorists do, that we are as humans defined by our language. Readers are reminded of the anecdote about an Eskimo tribe with 120 words for snow; Pinker says this is a myth, and points out that English itself has tens of words for frozen precipitation. Just because a word doesn't exist for an item in our language doesn't mean that we can't conceive of it, he says. And further, he notes, we do not think in language. Thoughts are something else. How do we know? Because we can often have a thought but fail to find the right word to express it. Common sense, indeed. (And yet, I know that I think in words in one way because I have conversations with myself inside my head. So perhaps words begin to fill in for thoughts? These are issues for another brain person to write about.)

Later chapters focus on specific subjects. Can primates learn language? Pinker says no, and he says the question is ludicrous anyway, for primates may be from the same evolutionary ancestor but that does not mean that they too would have language. Language, Pinker believes, came about after the human tree split off.

A grammar gene? Pinker sites studies of families wherein grammatical difficulties reside in a high percentage of the people, such that they have problems knowing when to use "are" with a noun (he are; they are--it doesn't make a difference in the family). Likewise, there are idiot savants that can speak completely grammatically but whose every sentence is nonsense (the cows are doing nicely in the bathtub, don't you think? I rather like shiny plastic. But my mother says colors are for babies). He looks into our brains and discusses exactly where language resides. He talks of how grammar is something we develop before the age of nine or so, and of how, failing that--as has happened with some unfortunate neglected and abused children--the ability to state things grammatically is forever lost, as the brain devotes those parts to other tasks.

There are sections in the book on phonemes and morphemes. Pinker draws out the reasons that some of our irregular words actually make linguistic sense, which was interesting to see. He points out that children generally learn how to format words according to the rules of the language without ever learning actual words (so that, given a nonexistent verb, they can easily conjugate it--he wugs, they wug).

He touches on the grammar books that tell us not to split infinitives and how many of these rules are absolute hogwash. He also touches on the possible origins of language.

In the latter element, I am left a bit startled. Pinker is big on natural selection and on evolution and assumes virtually every "educated" reader will be as well. Count me out. As much as he can explain that over time a person with linguistic abilities would outsurvive those who didn't somehow mutate such traits and pass them on, I fail to see how (1) humans would have simultaneously developed organs that could talk (something primates don't have) and the mind that could forge sentences, and (2) what advantage abstract concepts such as "purpose" or "meaning" would offer to evolutionary evolved beings. In the end, we have to part company there, because his science, as I see it, is as much a faith as mine.

The last chapter discusses some of the implications of his basic thesis, the main one of which is very intriguing indeed. If we have a language instinct, Pinker notes, than all humans have a fundamental biological tie to one another. In essence, we are not determined by our culture but by our biology. Of course, this is qualified, for even Pinker understands that such things work hand in hand.

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