The Language Instinct

The Language Instinct

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Steven Pinker

- How the Mind Creates Language -

EPub Edition © JUNE 2011 ISBN: 978-0-06-203252-2
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Book Details
 612 p
 File Size 
 3,194 KB
 File Type
 PDF format
 1994 by Steven Pinker 

About the Author
The Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, STEVEN
PINKER has been named one of Time magazine’s “Hundred Most Important
People in the World Today,” and has been awarded numerous prizes for his
research, teaching, and books. He is the author of six books, including How the
Mind Works and The Blank Slate (both Pulitzer Prize finalists and winners of the
William James Book Prize), as well as Words and Rules and The Stuff of
Thought. He is a frequent contributor to Time, The New Republic, and the New York Times.

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Praise for
“Reading Steven Pinker’s book is one of the biggest favors I’ve ever done my
brain. It is the sort of writing that any genuine expert on a subject longs to
achieve: highly accessible to the general reader yet at the same time seminal for
professionals. Laypeople will be gripped by a lucid and witty introduction to the
fascinating subject of linguistics. Orthodox social scientists—and their
biological fellow travelers—will find a formidable Darwinian challenge to their
cherished dogmas. Word-pedants like me (or those who say ‘gender’ when they
mean ‘sex’) will retreat chastened. Even if you disagree with it, you’ll surely be
charmed and engaged by this brilliant work.”
—Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene
“A brilliant, witty, and altogether satisfying book…. Mr. Pinker has that facility,
so rare among scientists, of making the most difficult material accessible to the
average reader. Most important, he never talks down to the reader…. The
fundamental unity of humanity is the theme of this exciting book. Arresting…
amusing and instructive…a useful, compelling book.”
—New York Times Book Review
“Absorbing. He makes a persuasive, entertaining case for his thesis.”
“A remarkably engaging book. The book is packed tight with observations,
experimental results, insight and forceful arguments based on what we all know
of language but never analyze. This reader finds Professor Pinker’s genuinely
instructive volume funny as well, a delightful member of that rare genre headed
by that classic Life on the Mississippi.”
—Scientific American
“His own use of language is a powerful advertisement for this human ability, as
he lays his stall out with clarity and candor…. Darwin…would surely be
impressed by the way in which Pinker sheds light on these questions…. A superb
book, simply at the level of being a good read: it is packed with fascinating facts
and information…. Pinker debunks with panache, cuts through the confusion of
jargon, and tells a mean anecdote. He does for language what David
Attenborough does for animals, explaining difficult scientific concepts so easily
that they are indeed absorbed as a transparent stream of words…. I will be
astonished if a better science book of any kind, let alone one accessible to the
general reader, comes along this year…. His book is groundbreaking,
exhilarating, fun, and almost certainly correct. Do yourself a favor and read it.”
—Sunday Times (London)
“A brilliant study of language…. Language is full of mysteries, which Pinker
excavates like a pig after truffles. Professor Pinker…was a brave man to write
this book, for who would have taken it seriously if it had been clodhoppingly
written? As it happens, he writes splendidly.”
—The Times (London)
“An excellent book full of wit and wisdom and sound judgment…better than
most college courses on language and the mind—and a great deal more digestible.”
—Boston Globe Book Review
“A book to inspire.”
—Perspectives of the Orton Dyslexia Society
“A dazzling new book…. This is all immensely fine and trenchant, and Pinker
embarks on his argument with brilliant dash and swagger: ‘I want to debauch
your mind with learning,’ he begins…. What a wonderful ambition. Not many
writers aim this high. [He is] a canny writer and a bit of a wag…. The Language
Instinct vibrates with delicious asides and poignant discoveries…. Words can
hardly do justice to the superlative range and liveliness of Pinker’s investigations.”
—The Independent
“Steven Pinker is, I think, engagingly wrong in some of his conclusions, but the
operative word here is engagingly. He reminds us of the pleasures of reading
about language, provided people like him are at the wheel.”
—William F. Buckley, Jr.
“Splendid…. Not bad for a supposedly stuffy scholar from MIT.”
—Los Angeles Times
“He writes with authority and grace about the sprawling science of linguistics,
making even its thornier branches accessible to general readers.”
—USA Today
“[A] triumph of common sense over some of the nonsense that has dominated
psychology and linguistics for much of this century…. A book about language
had better be well written, and Mr. Pinker’s book is superbly so. Rarely can such
a rich harvest of new ideas and profound insights have been made so accessible
by one of their inventors…. He is unfailingly articulate, funny, and clear. The
book is to Chomsky as Shakespeare is to Spenser.”
—The Economist
“[A] marvelously readable book about language, written by a real expert. Steven
Pinker tackles with wit and erudition the kinds of question everyone asks….
[He] brings not only an expertise in linguistics and psychology and a wide
knowledge of biology, but also an ability to understand the ordinary person’s
linguistic hang-ups and to shake them loose with gentle ridicule…. Whatever its
eventual impact on linguistics and psychology, The Language Instinct will
undoubtedly be greeted as a distinguished contribution to the lay understanding
of science…. With its wealth of examples, its flawless typesetting, its wideranging
bibliography and its irresistible good humor, Pinker’s book is certain to
increase its readers’ respect for the amazing natural phenomena that the author
and his colleagues have made their life’s study.”
“Somebody finally got it right. Steve Pinker’s thoroughly modern, totally
engaging book introduces lay readers to the science of language in ways that are
irreverent and hilarious while coherent and factually sound. A delicious read.”
—Leila Gleitman, University of Pennsylvania;
President, Linguistic Society of America
“A mightily ambitious book…. With an unusual and attractive blend of patience
and wit, Pinker is extremely good at explaining…. Pinker is not yet 40; with his
voracious intelligence and his gift for prose, we can expect many more
installments from the front lines of neuroscience. I await them—nervously.”
—Montreal Gazette
“[An] exciting synthesis—an entertaining, totally accessible study that will
regale language lovers and challenge professionals in many disciplines…. A
beautiful hymn to the infinite creative potential of language.”
—Publishers Weekly
“Examples are clear and easy to understand; Pinker’s humor and insight make
this the perfect introduction to the world of cognitive science and language.
Highly recommended.”
“Run, don’t walk, to your local bookstore and buy The Language Instinct. In a
dazzling, informative, and funny book, Steven Pinker brings you into the
wonderful world of language. He spares the reader the mumbo jumbo of
linguistics and directs your attention to an unalterable truth. Language is an
instinct, and in the discovery, Pinker reveals the secrets of the mind. It is brilliant.”
—Michael S. Gazzaniga, Director, Center for Neuroscience,
University of California, Davis; author of Nature’s Mind
“[E]xtremely important…. The power of the book…is in the elegant assembly of
a coherent argument, based on a foundation of evolutionary biology…. The
Language Instinct is provocative. But there are no cheap points scored nor is
there any intemperate denunciation of opposing views…. The case is
intelligently structured, forcefully argued, and couched in beautiful prose.
Readers may reject Pinker’s conclusions, but they will greatly enjoy the
experience of the journey through his mind.”
—New Scientist
“[A] brilliant exposition…he expounds ideas with clarity, wit, and polish.”
—The Observer
“Pinker is unfailingly stimulating, as well as writing in a genuinely democratic
style that combines elegance with unforced touches of the popular.”
—New Statesman and Society
“[A]n impressive book. It is vividly written by a man of great learning…full of
useful information to impart at cocktail parties.”
—Literary Review
“[A]n important and fascinating book…. Professor Pinker writes very clearly
and wittily. He makes us appreciate the marvelous nature of what we ordinarily
take for granted—one of the marks of a good popularizer.”
—Sunday Telegraph
“A cracking book…marvelous…wonderful to read.”
—The Guardian
“A great book…. Its author is in love with language and revels in its uses….
While providing an astonishingly thorough course in psycholinguistics, Pinker
also manages to be funnier than I would have thought such a substantive, critical
discussion could possibly be…. Pinker’s biology is impeccably up-to-date.
Indeed, he displays a much more sophisticated and critical understanding of
issues in evolution and adaptation than most biologists. The Language Instinct
should be a candidate for best book of the 90’s. Or at least a Pullet Surprise.”
—Quarterly Review of Biology
“The most lucid, charming, and wide-ranging popularization of Noam
Chomsky’s linguistics ever written.”
—Toronto Globe and Mail
“Pinker writes clearly and engagingly about the most difficult matters.”
—American Airlines Way
“Steven Pinker has made several landmark contributions to cognitive science in
the past, and his latest book The Language Instinct constitutes yet another one.
[It is] written in an exceptionally clear, engaging, and witty style and directed
towards a general audience…. One might be tempted to think that this book is
simply a rerun of Chomsky’s greatest hits, but that would be mistaken. What
makes Pinker’s version of the story extremely original and valuable is that…he
makes abundant use of a wide range of different sources of evidence, including
developmental psycholinguistics, cognitive neuroscience, and evolutionary
psychology…. A brilliant piece of work. It succeeds in demonstrating that the
recent discoveries about the uniquely human ability to acquire and use language
are as elegant and exciting as anything in modern science.”
—Mind and Language
“Pinker eloquently explains the details of Chomsky’s revolutionary theory, and
then proceeds to bring us up-to-date on the latest advances in linguistics….
Luckily, he’s also a user-friendly writer able to transform technical stuff into a
fun and informative read…. But don’t be fooled by the entertainment: Pinker is
dead serious about language.”
“Steven Pinker, one of the leading linguistic researchers in the world, skillfully
defends a provocative thesis about the biological bases of language and in the
process provides authoritative answers to major questions about the nature of
language. The Language Instinct is a splendid and indispensable book.”
—Howard Gardner, Graduate School of Education,
Harvard University; author of The Mind’s New Science
“[A]n accessible, entertaining, and authoritative introduction to the modern
science of language…. It is a joy to witness, at last, the prommise of linguistics fulfilled.”
—London Review of Books

Table of Contents

1. An Instinct to Acquire an Art
2. Chatterboxes
3. Mentalese
4. How Language Works
5. Words, Words, Words
6. The Sounds of Silence
7. Talking Heads
8. The Tower of Babel
9. Baby Born Talking—Describes Heaven
10. Language Organs and Grammar Genes
11. The Big Bang
12. The Language Mavens
13. Mind Design
Searchable Terms
P.S. Insights, Interviews & More…
About the Author
Other Books by Steven Pinker
About the Publisher


An Instinct to Acquire an Art
As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the
natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we
can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. I am not
referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science;
even in the depictions of believers these are blunt instruments compared to an
ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. That ability is
language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause
precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds. The ability
comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is. So let me remind
you with some simple demonstrations. Asking you only to surrender your
imagination to my words for a few moments, I can cause you to think some very
specific thoughts: