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

Steven Pinker

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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Chapter 6 : The Sounds of Silence | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • The human body is predisposed to communicate through speech. Although humans are innately predisposed to perceive language, which occurs through phonetic input, hearing and perceiving are distinct and sometimes competing processes.
  • Writing is not designed to represent actual speech sounds but rather the abstract units of language that underlie speech.
  • A word boundary has no sound but plays a vital role in making sense of speech.
  • Phonemes are the smallest units of sound within a word. In contrast to morphemes and words, phonemes do not contribute meaning. Phonemes link to speech, not thought.
  • The brain rapidly decodes speech.
  • A fundamental design feature of language is the division into discrete combinatorial systems. These systems include combinations of sounds into morphemes and morphemes into words, phrases, and sentences.
  • Phonemes can have different sounds, depending on where they occur in words. Although humans instinctively adapt the sounds according to their language, speech recognition devices do this poorly.
  • Phonemes are treelike structures, rather than strings. They include the onset (beginning sound) and the rime (vowel and consonants that follow within a syllable).
  • Rules govern not phonemes but the features of the phonemes—such as where they occur within the syllable. This fact suggests the brain stores and manipulates these "atoms" of sound in the brain, rather than the phonemes. The human brain is innately predisposed to use the combinatorial system to manipulate and store these minute features of sound.
  • Members of a linguistic community adopt an arbitrary set of phonological rules, which creates dialect.
  • Speech perception is not a top-down process that relies on a sense of expectation of what a communication partner will say. Rather, it is driven by acoustics. The innate sense of language and how language works mediates perception to a higher degree than does expectation. This observation explains why speech recognizers, which rely mainly on expectation, so often fail. In contrast, DragonDictate—a kind of speech recognition software—which, like the human mind, is based on acoustic, phonological, and lexical analysis, has been more successful. Its failings result primarily from the aspects of its functionality that do rely on expectancies.
  • Language is an instinct, but writing is not.
  • If alphabets corresponded perfectly to sound, the number of characters would be unwieldy, given the differing sounds of phonemes based on their placement within syllables.
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