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

Steven Pinker

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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language | Quotes


Language is not a cultural artifact.

Steven Pinker, Chapter 1

Pinker refutes the commonly held notion that language is learned, that is, taught to children by their parents. The field of cognitive science sheds new light on human intelligence, which has far-reaching implications for perceptions about language. Pinker argues throughout the book that language is innate—not a "cultural invention."


Complex language is universal because children actually reinvent it.

Steven Pinker, Chapter 2

Pinker makes a strong case for language as an innate trait by citing the evidence that generation after generation of young children generate complex language. They do so regardless of the quality of linguistic input they receive. He cites research evidence from linguist Derek Bickerton (1926-2018) that shows children raised in pidgin-speaking communities infuse their own complexity into the language, resulting in creole.


People ... think in a language of thought.

Steven Pinker, Chapter 3

Pinker refutes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines thought. He cites evidence from cognitive science about how the brain processes information, as well as studies of deaf children and babies. On that basis he argues thought is not constrained by language but operates according to its own language of the mind, which he terms "mentalese."


The details of syntax ... are a case where complexity in the mind is not caused by learning.

Steven Pinker, Chapter 4

The innateness of language ran contrary to the prevailing behaviorist notion that humans are a blank slate until acted upon by their environment. Therefore, it proved to be a revolutionary idea. Yet, as Pinker shows, human beings seem hardwired to learn and use language from birth.


Words are not simply retrieved from a mental archive.

Steven Pinker, Chapter 5

Pinker refutes the behaviorist notion that humans learn language by being exposed to the speech of others and then reinforced as they use it. Pinker cites research to support the idea that humans do not simply learn language by memorizing a list of words they have heard. Instead, they have an innate understanding that word forms are created according to a rule-governed system. Even children have such knowledge. Thus, words are stored in the brain, not simply in a list, but rather, with a knowledge of the rules pertaining to the words.


The three-year-old, then, is a grammatical genius.

Steven Pinker, Chapter 9

At the age of three, Pinker points out, human children are competent at few complex tasks. Yet, they masterfully construct sentences according to rules they have never been formally taught. Even their errors are sensible, conforming at least in some respect to rules of syntax and morphology. Their competence supports his argument for an innate language instinct.


Mental flexibility confines children; innate constraints set them free.

Steven Pinker, Chapter 9

Pinker explains why children can learn language so rapidly. The innate presence of Universal Grammar constrains children by enabling them to know words can only be combined in certain ways. Because they know what is not possible, they are free to focus on what is possible—an infinite number of possible combinations.


The discrete combinatorial system called "grammar" makes human language infinite.

Steven Pinker, Chapter 11

Pinker differentiates human language from the communication systems of other animals. Human language uses finite media—the limited number of words in the mental lexicon—to create an infinite number of potential utterances. This is possible because of the treelike design of all human languages. This design allows words to be combined into phrases and phrases to be embedded in other phrases in an infinite number of ways.


Language mavens claim that nonstandard American English is ... less sophisticated and logical.

Steven Pinker, Chapter 12

Pinker differentiates between prescriptive and descriptive grammars. He argues that the language spoken by all humans is equally complex, regardless of their language or dialect. Humans instinctively use Universal Grammar, the underlying template that enables even children to learn and use the rule-governed systems of language, combining words and phrases into meaningful utterances. He disproves the claims of the "language mavens" that English is degenerating and nonstandard dialects are less sophisticated than standard English.


I ... sense that we all have the same minds.

Steven Pinker, Chapter 13

Viewing language as an instinct implies that all humans have a common bond. To Pinker differences in the world's languages and dialects are merely superficial. He sees the deep structural similarities underlying all language and concludes that human minds are more alike than different.

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