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. 21 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 21, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Language-Instinct-How-the-Mind-Creates-Language/.

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Chapter 5 : Words, Words, Words | Summary

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Key Takeaways

  • The brain is not merely a storehouse for words. Morphology, a rule-based system for word formation and use, governs word storage and retrieval.
  • Morphology is too complex to be explained by a chain system. A tree-system, similar to the rules of syntax, governs the formation and use of most words.
  • Roots are the smallest part of a word that cannot be further broken down into a meaningful part. Roots combine with affixes to form stems, and they do so in specified ways. However, word formation is not completely formulaic.
  • Research by psycholinguist Peter Gordon suggests a child's brain is hardwired with the logic of word structure. Rules for word-formation seem to exist in the unconscious minds of both children and adults. This observation is an example of language input being unable to explain children's language output. Thus, it lends support to the notion that language is innate.
  • Children distinguish between word strings and phrase structures.
  • "Word" refers to one of two things: (1) a linguistic object that "behaves as the indivisible, smallest unit with respect to the rules of syntax;" and (2) a memorized string arbitrarily assigned a meaning, such as an idiom.
  • The size of a person's vocabulary is infinite because of the potential for word-building according to the rules of morphology.
  • The brain seems hardwired to learn words rapidly.
  • Word learning is not mere imitation. It must be understood as a "bidirectional symbol" of meaning—that is, moving or involving two directions, usually opposites.
  • The relationship between a word's sound and its meaning is arbitrary. Even young children know it is arbitrary, as demonstrated by their tendency to confuse "you" and "me" when referring to themselves.
  • Humans "innately ... make only ... probably correct [guesses] about how the world and its occupants work." Babies innately form categories and label them in mentalese, which facilitates word learning in human children, even before they produce speech.
  • More meanings exist than words. Studies suggest that children know this innately.
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