Sunday, 18 March 2018

Steven Pinker, 'The Language Instinct'

My Goodreads review:

Comrades, this book made me a Chomskyite. No, no, no, not politically, OBVS, but linguistically. I read Chomsky many years ago, and wasn't quite convinced, somewhat under the influence of eg George Steiner.

New readers start here: Chomsky said, essentially, that language was innate, and had what he called a deep structure, common to all human languages. Children have a universal grammar, which is hardwired into their brains before birth, so they do not learn language from others but develop it themselves. This is why children who have just started talking say things like "I goed" instead of "I went" - words they have never heard, but have extrapolated from their pre-verbal grammar. My daughter, aged two, when urged "Quickly!", often replied "I am quickling". Anyway, I wasn't totally convinced, back then, and was in any case prejudiced against Chomsky because, like too many USian academics, he is a monoglot - but Pinker has done it now. It's certainly clear that children are not language tabulae rasae.

Along the way, Pinker points out the Great Eskimo Language Hoax (that there are many words for snow) - in fact the languages of that region typically have fewer words for snow than English does - which hoax is still widely believed; largely I think because people want it to be true.

Pinker is also educational and clear. He tells us straight, for instance, that a creole is the language that results when children make a pidgin their native language. All languages are created by children, and they do it by creating a grammar for the words they use. This would invalidate Orwell's Newspeak, as children would creolise it within a generation.

Thoughts are not words, Pinker informs us. If they were, how could more than one thought be expressed by a single word? Or vice versa?

This book treats of cognitive psychology, and is often complex. I confess to reading the complex accounts of experiments and studies in speech and thought quite quickly, not stopping to study and consider them as I would have to do if I were reading this book in an academic setting.

Pinker points out that what he calls "language mavens", but which he means prescriptive pedants (people who write to newspapers saying that a preposition is something with which a sentence should never be ended) choose their examples of abominable English from sources like welfare applications, insurance claims, and student papers; in all of these the writers are trying to convince, and to make a good impression, and are only rarely using language that is natural to them. And yes, I know how long that sentence just was.

This is not a crowd-pleaser, or a particularly easy read. Pinker's own passions do show through, at times entertainingly: he hates relativism, he says "more than I hate anything, excepting, maybe, fiberglass powerboats", and it is a quirkily amusing read in many places without ever being arch or droll.

This is a book for anyone interested in language - and we all, in our own ways, are.">View all my reviews

1 comment:

Augustus Carp said...

Re: the Great Eskimo Language Hoax - it has been noted that scholars of Intellectual History have over 30 names for CP Snow.....