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

Steven Pinker

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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Main Ideas


Language Is a Human Instinct

Like the esteemed linguist Noam Chomsky, Pinker views language as an instinct. Pinker supports this view by citing evidence from anthropological studies and studies of children's language development. For example, no mute tribe of people has ever been found. Also, language among children of all generations and cultures has been found to be universally complex, regardless of input. Both Pinker and Chomsky hold that the mind has a "blueprint" for the rules of grammar, contributing to the linguistic complexity with which young children speak. Drawing on evidence from several well-regarded studies of children's language, Pinker shows that children apply linguistic rules. They do so even in the absence of specific input or instruction from the adults around them. For example, the children in one study knew that "mice-eater" is acceptable, but "rats-eater" is not.

Although most linguists agree that human language is a complex, uniquely human ability, they disagree on its origin. Chomsky proposes a somewhat vague notion that physical law is responsible. That is, the human brain is compelled to contain circuits for Universal Grammar, the basic blueprint for language learning that all humans possess. Pinker appeals to common sense. He argues such a Universal Grammar law is as unlikely as the winds of a hurricane sweeping up parts in a junkyard and creating a jetliner. Other scholars contend that the only possible explanations for the complexity, efficiency, and universality of human language are a divine creator or a mutation equivalent to the Big Bang. Some critics argue the evolution of a "new [grammar] module" is impossible. Pinker counters that according to this logic, complex organs like eyes and livers could never have evolved. He proposes that "although natural selection involves incremental [enhancements], the enhancements do not have to be to an existing module." According to Pinker, a new module can slowly emerge, just as the eye evolved. Similarly, brain circuits could gradually be rewired through a sequence of gradual genetic changes.

Pinker's view that language evolved through natural selection removes the need for a divine creator who created complexities like the eye with the goal of seeing in the divine mind. Rather, the theory of natural selection allows for the retention and combination of "small random improvements," provided they lead to reproductive advantage. For a trait to result from natural selection, it must be hereditary. Pinker makes the case that if language is like other complex instincts, it evolved by natural selection because it resulted in reproductive advantage. According to Pinker, natural selection provides the only reasonable alternative to the development of complex organs other than divine creation.

The Underlying Design of Human Language Is Complex

Throughout The Language Instinct Pinker makes a case for the underlying complexity of human language. He argues the ability of every human being—and most significantly, every human child—to develop and use language, points to language as an innate human trait. "The three-year-old, then, is a grammatical genius," asserts Pinker, who shows that even young children master the rules of a language without formal instruction. Even when children make mistakes, they do so according to rule-based logic. Although three-year-olds are competent at few complex tasks, they can understand and produce many utterances that are completely novel. According to Pinker the only reasonable explanation for such sophisticated abilities is instinct.

Pinker explains that human language operates according to two principles, both of which are common across all languages. First, "the arbitrariness of the sign" is the idea that words are arbitrary signifiers for concepts and ideas. That is, no link exists between the sound of the word and the meaning of the word. Second, "the infinite use of finite media" is the notion that speakers of a language choose from a finite number of words in the mental lexicon. They then combine them, not in simple, chain-like forms, but through the formation and nesting of phrases. This treelike formation of phrases allows the speaker to create an unlimited number of novel utterances.

Humans innately produce speech according to the rules of morphology, that is, the rules of word-formation and syntax. Syntax refers to the rules for combining words into phrases and sentences. Humans do not need to catalog an unwieldy number of rules in the brain. According to X-bar theory, underlying every human language is a small set of "super-rules." These super-rules serve as a blueprint for the phrase structure of a given language. They provide a set of guiding principles that specify what a phrase looks like and facilitate both productive and receptive language abilities. Pinker argues knowledge of super-rules is universal and innate and helps explain children's ability to learn language rapidly.

Language maintains its complexity, never degenerating into less complex forms, despite what the "language mavens"—the self-appointed guardians of "standard grammar"—may claim. Each generation of children, hardwired as they are to learn and use language, regenerates language in all its complexity according to an innate, universal language instinct.

The Mind Is Not Constrained by Language but Creates It

Although the mind creates language, it is not mediated by language, as some have claimed. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a person's thoughts are determined and constrained by their language. For example, it was once thought that those whose language did not include words for particular colors did not perceive those colors. Pinker exposes the faulty methodology of the studies upon which the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is based. Next, he appeals to common sense. He asks who has not found themselves unable to find words to express a thought or saying something that communicated a meaning they had not intended. In addition, Pinker cites studies that assess nonverbal thought. Finally, he explains "the physical symbol system hypothesis"—a theory that helps cognitive scientists describe how the mind processes information. Pinker demonstrates that any language is insufficient to enable the brain to process information effectively.

Pinker proposes that the language of human thought is "mentalese." Pinker defines mentalese as a hypothetical means of representing concepts in the brain. He claims mentalese is richer than spoken language in that a single word can bring to mind many related concepts. However, mentalese is also simpler than spoken language in that function words like determiners and prepositions are absent, and rules of syntax and phonology, the study of the organization of sounds, are unnecessary. To know a language is, according to Pinker, to have the ability to translate mentalese into a form others can understand.

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