The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Study Guide

Steven Pinker

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Course Hero. "The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language Study Guide." Course Hero. 1 May 2020. Web. 23 June 2021. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Language-Instinct-How-the-Mind-Creates-Language/>.

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Course Hero, "The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language Study Guide," May 1, 2020, accessed June 23, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Language-Instinct-How-the-Mind-Creates-Language/.

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Chapter 4 : How Language Works | Summary

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Key Takeaways

  • Language operates according to two principles: (1) "the arbitrariness of sign," that is, words are arbitrarily assigned meanings, and (2) the "infinite use of finite media."
  • "Generative grammar" is the set of rules governing how sets of words translate into particular thoughts.
  • In a blending system parts lose their individual properties when combined into a whole. In contrast, grammar is a "discrete combinatorial system," allowing linguistic elements to be combined in an unlimited number of ways, yielding an infinite range of outcomes.
  • Each individual has the potential to utter an infinite number of sentences. The human brain is distinctive in its ability to use finite media to create an infinite possibility of utterances.
  • Although syntax is complex, thought is more complex, lending additional support to the notion that language does not govern thought. Furthermore, syntax and meaning operate independently. Thus, a sentence can be grammatically correct but not make sense and vice versa.
  • A word-chain device in the brain (a view consistent with behaviorist perspectives on language) is inadequate to explain human language for several reasons. First, because sentences must have meaning, they are not the same as word chains. Second, some sentences, such as those with embedded components, are too complex to be explained by word chains. Third, sentence structure is modular; it is treelike in structure, not chainlike.
  • According to Noam Chomsky's theory of how language works, parts of speech operate as tokens that play roles in language according to certain rules. Certain "super-rules" govern a language, guiding how phrases are structured. Chomsky argues the super-rules are universal and innate, which sheds light on why young children can learn language quickly.
  • All phrases across all languages are structured similarly.
  • For grammar to link speech, thought, and hearing, some internal, independent "logic" must exist, and it must exist independently of an individual's environment or experience. In other words, such complexity in the mind is not caused by learning, but instead, "learning is caused by complexity in the mind."
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