Most helpful critical review
63 of 77 people found the following review helpful
have fun, but beware
on February 25, 1999
Before Pinker's ego spun completely out of control in _How the Mind Works_, we got a slightly less ambitious, and in many ways laudable, book in the form of _The Language Instinct_. Pinker has no scruples: he doesn't care how entertaining he is.
The highlights of this book are what linguists have been saying ever since Bloomfield: language change is natural, there's no such thing as "right" or "wrong" grammar or pronunciation, only what is conventional, and so on. It's encouraging to see someone, even a non-linguist, writing a book that says that kind of thing.
As an outline of generative linguistics or, more specifically, Chomskyan linguistics with all its psychological baggage (innateness and all that), it's decent. I must admit seeing the same old stuff rehashed nearly prompted me to give up here and there, but that won't be a problem for neophytes.
Still, "best introduction to generative grammar out there"? Ugh. God save us. The "hurrahs" and one-sided nature of this book, which bothered reviewers even in pro-Chomsky journals, will, I think, give readers a biased opinion about what linguistics is about and, more important, what linguists think they know. (Pinker has a penchant for claiming we know more than we actually do.) Whatever happened to encouraging skepticism and the tentative nature of scientific claims?
The last chapter is interesting, as Pinker, all the while admitting that people will think he's nuts, outlines an outrageously nativist theory of the mind, a precursor to _How the Mind Works_. Pinker practically says that genes determine how long you suck your thumb (I wonder what held him back). Well, you were right, Pinker, some of us think you're a little nuts.
Amusing, informative, yes. In the meantime, some of us are waiting for someone in the Langacker/Lakoff camp who can actually write...
(To the well-meaning but misinformed reader who accused the "professionals in the field" of being "threatened by his insights": You're about thirty years late. Pinker's "insights" have been orthodox, especially on the East Coast, for a long time.)