on May 31, 2011
This is not a review of the book itself, just a warning for anyone thinking of getting the Kindle edition.
The people who published this for Kindle should be ashamed of themselves for selling this product with a straight face.
As Kindle books are often scanned from printed versions, I'v grown accustomed to seeing the occasional mis-scanned word, as they are usually sparse and don't distract from the content.
This book, however, contains hundreds of mis-scans. I'm talking about a few every page (some pages might contain up to 10 errors). And these are errors that routinely distract from the content of the book, as the errors will sometime spell a different word altogether, giving a sentence a completely different meaning that you will only realize is nonsensical after reading an entire paragraph.
Plus, 2 times out of ten, the combination of letters "th" will be scanned as "di". As you must realize, die difficulty of reading dirough paragraphs full of diese errors, in die kindle version of diis book, dioroughly distracts from the enjoyment of die material.
on February 16, 1999
This is a superb introduction to generative linguistics (both phonology and syntax). Pinker has successfully simplified most of the complex methodological and notational issues to make these somewhat opaque fields more accessible to lay readers. As such, this is an ideal introductory text and a good reference for linguistic types who have had to forego the Ivory Tower but who want to keep their feet wet. What this text is not is an advanced, graduate-level text--and so don't expect that. If you've read any other book on generative theory (or better yet, minimalist theory), this book is backstepping. (Note that the negative reviewers of this title are also showing off how "advanced" they are--thereby missing the very point to this text!) On the other hand, if you're fascinated by language at all, no matter the reason, you owe it to yourself to try this text out. I have colleagues in non-linguistics fields of study (particularly literature) who don't understand why language isn't static, why the idea of "grammaticality" changes over time--or that Black Vernacular English and Sign Language are as well grammared as "standard" English. If you've been curious about any of these issues or more--buy and read "The Language Instinct."
on May 24, 2001
The enlightened Stephen Pinker delivers a masterful compendium on linguistic theory that is truly enjoyable to read. His fine use of wit and literary fluency makes this book very enjoyable and emulates the great Richard Dawkins in the way that it seeks (and succeeds) in reaching the layman, the student, and the academician. To put it bluntly, I had never been interested in Linguistics. It seemed to be a stuffy field of repetition of high school "grammar". When assigned to read this book for a Cognitive Development Psychology course, I approached it with dread. It turned out to be the highlight of my current academic quarter. Pinker, using clean evidence to back his claims, makes some wonderful assertions about Linguistics. This book, couched in the fascinating field of evolutionary psychology, does a good job of explaining the formation and foibles of a Universal Language. He justly attacks the ridiculously ingrained Standard Social Science Model of Language and delivers a cohesive explanation from a Psychologically oriented perspective. Unlike what most critics state, Pinker does NOT say that genes are the only basis of language, but rather supports the fundamental basis of evolutionary psychology. It goes a bit like this: the environment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors selected for certain genes to proliferate. These genes code us to synthesize certain proteins at certain times in our development to form certain physiological mechanisms (arms, lungs, brain, etc). Of these, he argues that the brain is not a general purpose processing tool but rather a domain specific one with an appropriate "Language Center". This causes us to have an innate mechanism for language and, therefore, an innate "Mentalese" and a Universal Grammar. HOWEVER - he also says that culture is necessary!! Without culture, one could never learn the particulars of their own language and, after a certain developmental threshold, would be without any specific language.
I apologize for the length of this endorsement. It just seemed that some possible, deconstructive critiques could seem compelling without some understanding of what Pinker was really getting at - the inherent beauty of human language and our "instinct" for it. So, if you skimmed this recommendation, know only this: "THIS BOOK IS WONDERFUL AND COVERS A GREAT RANGE AND DEPTH OF LINGUISTICS. A FUN AND INSPIRATIONAL READ".
on October 28, 1999
For the educated layperson, this book is the most fascinating and engaging introduction to linguistics I have come across. I know some college students who had received xeroxed handouts of one chapter from this book, and these were students who were just bored of reading handouts week after week... but after reading just a few paragraphs from The Language Instinct, they were hooked, fascinated, and really wanted to read the whole book (and did). I wish I had come across such a book years ago...
If you've wished you'd taken linguistics, and never did, get this book. This one book will do it for you! Pinker is intelligent, but more importantly is a master of illustrative examples for the layperson. However, the text is never "dumbed-down" and can be a challenge to any reader.
I've read some of the other readers' reviews... unfortunately some focus more on applying academic thought-criticisims of his nativist viewpoint. Certainly, if you are coming from an academic bent, yes, I would agree that it would be a gross misrepresentation to say that Pinker presents the definitive state of the art in linguistics, or that all linguists think like he does... in fact, the critical reviewers are right, Pinker is but one linguist in one theoretical camp, the "nativist" camp, i.e. the theory that genes drive language and its acquisition in a task-specific manner. But so what? Pinker's theory is not what drives enjoyment of the book; it's the enthusiasm and skill with which he can introduce any reader to the topic of the study of language! : It's not dry! It's fun!
His viewpoint is already apparent by the title; the true value of this gem of a book is for introducing to the layperson LINGUISTICS and the depth of the kinds of questions that can be asked about language... these questions can be "beautiful," and certainly most readers would not have thought of these issues themselves, yet after Pinker's examples, it all makes wonderful sense, and is memorable and lucid. Whether or not the reader agrees with Pinker after becoming sophisticated upon further readings is not relevant; without The Language Instinct, Pinker's engaging introduction to the field, many would never wish to become linguistically sophisticated in the first place!
The sort of reader who should pay attention to the specific thought-criticisms of some of the other reviewers should really be elsewhere, reading and critiquing Pinker's academic works, e.g. journal articles, or his book "Language Learnability and Language Development," not nitpicking a book meant for introducing the masses to the beauty of language! If you aren't a linguist, I would hazard that the majority of potential readers are safe to completely ignore these thought-criticisms when pondering their potential enjoyment of purchasing this book from Amazon.
These critical reviewers should be reading/writing journal articles in the academic literature! However if you are in the grey area of reading this book for an academic reason not strictly defined as Linguistics, these specific thought-criticisms are valid to take note of and to consider-- I would concede that some niches of academics (e.g. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh of chimpanzee artificial language) may be taking The Language Instinct text, a book for the layperson, as an academic gospel of the entire field of Linguistics, without really considering the underlying technical issues or counterarguments.
Overall, you likely won't find another book which presents the beauty & complexity of language with the ease of The Language Instinct. If you are to have but one book in your library on language, this should be the one.
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.)
on October 2, 2005
Addressing as it does issues of cognition, language usage and acquisition, evolutionary biology and innate versus learned behavior, this work is relevant to many of the great intellectual debates of our time. It is very readable for the most part, although if some of the topics are new to you then you will find a few sections rather heavy going. More illustrations would have helped here. There are syntax structure diagrams and one very grudging, cursory sketch of the language centers of the brain, but many sections cry out for a diagram among all the verbiage.
Pinker's lively, humorous style is often commented on but I sometimes found it wearing. He will illustrate a point with an amusing newspaper cutting, then list a few more, then add "I could not resist some more..." and so on. I sometimes wished he would just get on with it.
A major problem with his nativist approach, which other reviewers have commented on, is that many examples he lists of usages that English speakers would never employ are nothing of the kind. Most of them are conceivable and since the first publication of this book, linguists have been busy recording them in the field. The thesis also becomes somewhat unraveled in the penultimate chapter, where he argues that 'you and I' and 'you and me' are equally correct in all circumstances, because 'the pronoun is free to have any case it wants'. But if this is so then what has become of the innate awareness of correct usage that the whole theory is about? If 'between you and I' sounds instinctively wrong to me and 'between you and me' sounds instinctively wrong to someone else, does that mean one of us has a mutant grammar gene? I doubt it.
The title itself is problematic. 'Instinct' is not a word much in favor among biologists nowadays and whatever language is, it is certainly not instinctive in the traditional sense. Early in the book, Pinker admits as much, but determines to use the word anyway, a use that owes more to marketing than to science.
Still, this is probably the best introductory linguistics text currently available. If you are new to linguistics, start here rather than with Chomsky, but please go on to read Geoffrey Sampson's work, perhaps starting with his website, to get an alternative view. As with most academic disputes, the answer no doubt lies somewhere in the middle. Since Chomsky's early work, the nativists have toned down their claims considerably, while their opponents have made concessions. On page 34 of this book, Pinker says, "No one has yet located a language organ or a grammar gene, but the search is on." More than a decade later, the search is still on. Good luck with that.
I find it hard to believe sometimes that Stephen Pinker teaches at MIT. You mean some scientists do actually have a sense of humor? Anyone who reads this book had better have a great sense of humor, a love of the absurd, and a desire to really understand language. I'm in Science Education, not linguistics, but because I am deaf and studying how deaf people learn, it ends up with a lot of linguistic study in it. Usually the books from this lot of scientists are mind-boggling hard to get through, but not Mr. Pinker. If he teaches like he writes, then he must be a heck of a teacher! Mr. Pinker is also one of the few linguists who aren't devoted to ASL studies who includes information about American Sign Language that makes it clear that it is a real language in its own right. That alone would endear Dr. Pinker to the Deaf culture. This books takes all those difficult concepts concerning the innateness of language, and conveys them to the layman in an easy-to-understand way. He is never patronizing and always funny. I enjoy reading the book, which I often have to do since I use it in my papers a lot. To say Dr. Pinker's book is brilliant is a statement of fact. It's too bad some scientists in other fields couldn't take a cue from him and get a sense of humor! Karen L. Sadler Science Education, University of Pittsburgh, firstname.lastname@example.org
on August 13, 2012
In this book, Steven Pinker sets out to introduce the reader to the scientific study of language. At the start of the book, he addresses it to anyone who uses language, including linguistics students and scholars. My guess though is that most of the readers of this book will be educated non-linguists looking for a popular science book to entertain them and teach them a few interesting facts.
My main criticism of the text is that it doesn't live up to its name. Rather than being an introduction to the study of language in general, as its name implies, it is an introduction to a specific school of thought in linguistics - Chomskyan linguistics, or generative grammar.
I would question the appropriateness of this way of writing an introductory book to the subject for the general public in the first place, even if it happens to be the mainstream paradigm, as in this case. But what makes things worse is that Pinker never makes it sufficiently clear to the lay reader that his is only one side of the story, and that many of the `facts' presented are disputed and controversial.
Mind you, as an introduction to generative grammar, the book works great, and even as a linguist I came away feeling a bit clearer about this way of reasoning, which can be quite opaque.
I think that if you write a popular science book, you should try to be as objective as possible. If you adopt a particular way of looking at things you should clearly state so, and preferably contrast it with other theories. Two writers that are good at this are David Crystal (Encyclopedia of Language) and Nicholas Ostler (Empires of the Word).
Not only is Pinker's style dishonest to the reader, but it also makes the book lose in entertainment value. One of the major tenets of generative grammar is `the modularity of language', which states that language makes up a special, distinct module of the mind that is fundamentally different from other cognitive abilities, and only interacts with them in a restricted way. This narrows the scope of this theory and leaves out a lot of interesting things that could have been said about the relation of language to culture, art, history etc.
I was going to give this book two stars for its dishonest style, but then I realised that it had actually stimulated me to think about the subject, if only to form counterarguments to everything I disagreed with, so I'll give it three. Read it, but read it critically, even if you're a non-linguist.
on November 11, 2001
A good friend with whom I was discussing language urged me to read this book. I must say that I was captivated from the first sentence. Other reviewers have mentioned that this is not a book for everyone and I agree - much of the science and terminology of the linguists is beyond me - and I consider myself fairly well educated. When Pinker steers clear from mucking up the story with in-depth explanations of word placements and whatnot - it is a brilliant treatise on this marvelous "instinct" - the ability of human beings to learn and use language.
Pinker sets out to view language as a characteristic (like the elephant's trunk) that simply happens to be unique to this species (which is why the "sign language using" apes in our society are little more than farces). I think I loved most of all the convincing examples he uses to support his argument. Whether it was about the deaf children of hearing parents who learn a fluent sign language, or the aphasics, or disproving the Eskimo `hoax' (they don't have 100s of words for snow), or the simple support of a language "gene" - and a description of what he calls, "mentalese" - I was hooked. Although I suspect that this book was meant to be used as a college textbook - the fact remains that if you are interested in language and the human abilities to learn it, manipulate it, process it, and communicate with it - then this is a wonderful book.
on October 13, 2002
Steven Pinker's best-known book has some wonderful chapters, some so-so chapters, and a few that damage the credibility of the rest. Chapter 6 on how the sounds of spoken languages are formed is itself worth the price of the book. Chapter 2 on the grammatic differences between languages is fascinating. Chapters 4, 5, 7 and 8, which talk about grammar and its role in determining meaning, are well-meaning but become repetitive and obvious. When talking about Artificial Intelligence he is ill-informed and unaccountably pessimistic about future advances in the field. In Chapters 3 and 9 he proposes a "language instinct" and in chapter 10 a "grammar gene," but both hew to discredited Chompskian models and don't even try to establish any mechanism. In chapter 11 he dismisses the whole field of non-human communication in toto, citing such Christian apologists as Herbert Terrace. Instead he sets up a series of straw men, claiming that because that apes cannot master advanced grammar in human languages (undisputed), somehow this makes their mental processes unworthy of study. This contradicts his earlier claim, in chapter 3, that mental processes can exist quite independently of grammar and language. He apparently never even considers that non-human grammar may differ from ours. Worse, he doesn't even mention non-primate language research! 12 is a vitriolic dismissal of all his critics, and 13 falls into the common trap of describing evolution as "wanting to build" this or that, a common convention for which he could be excused if this were his only failing.
Throughout, Pinker maintains a breezy, readable tone full of pop-culture references - which unfortunately becomes infuriating when it's obvious he doesn't know what he's talking about.