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," 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 8 : The Tower of Babel | Summary

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Key Takeaways

  • Noam Chomsky noted that the world's languages share many commonalities and vary in somewhat predictable ways, which suggests language is innate.
  • The universals of language do not, in themselves, prove the structure of the human brain constrains language. First, language could have originated from one common language and retained many traits, making language appear to have universals. Pinker refutes this by arguing that if this were the case, languages should differ in ways consistent with the "family tree of languages," which they do not. Second, language universals could reflect commonalities in mental information processing rather than in language. Pinker refutes this by pointing out children will say "mice-eater" but never "rats-eater," as found in Peter Gordon's study. Gordon's observation suggests such universals are based on the way the brain processes rules, not concepts.
  • Pinker says the best argument for an innate Universal Grammar is "the organization of grammar as a whole." All languages have "things that can sensibly be called subjects, objects, and verbs," and these categories operate according to rule-governed patterns. This system of patterns is called the X-bar system. Such commonalities are found in all human languages but not in music or computer-based languages.
  • Universal Grammar functions as an archetype across humans.
  • A "blueprint" of sorts underlies all human languages.
  • Languages differ for the same reasons species differ. Differences result from the effects of variation, heredity, and isolation, occurring over time. Different languages result from the effects of innovation, learning, and migration.
  • Language develops over time; it does not spring into being all at once in the newborn child. There are two reasons. First, the typical human vocabulary of 60,000 words would take up too much room in a genome. Second, language is only useful when used, which requires another human being.
  • Because language use occurs between two human brains with Universal Grammar, people can reanalyze what they hear, sometimes resulting in linguistic innovations.
  • Linguistic innovations never lead to the degeneration of language. The presence of Universal Grammar ensures the continuing complexity of language.
  • Language innovation occurs slowly.
  • Languages hold the cultural and historical artifacts of various groups of people.
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