on February 6, 2000
If The Language Instinct described Pinker's view of the development of language and How the Mind Works described his views about cognition in general, this latest work details his ideas about the cognitive organization of language. And like his other books, Pinker tries to persuade the reader to agree with his assessment of thingsusing humorous examples, occasionally odd logic, hyperbole, and in this case a 290 page extended example.
Pinker believes that the brain's representation of language is rule based - morphology (such as adding -s to a noun to make it plural or -ed to a verb to make it past tense) occurs because a system in the brain applies a rule during language production. During the past twenty years or so, many cognitive scientists have begun to think that perhaps this type of morphology is not rule based at all, but instead occurs because of the specific pattern of connections in the brain. The goal of this book is to convince the reader that connectionism is wrong, and a rule based system is correct. To do this, he talks about irregular verbs; their etymology bastardization by children, idiosyncrasies, and production by non-typical populations. I never thought that irregular verbs and oddly plauralized nouns could be interesting. I was right. This topic is so much more esoteric than his other books, that even his entertaining examples could not overcome either my skepticism or my boredom. After a while you just want to hear something different. Pinker is not reporting a phenomena, and evenhandedly evaluating various explanatory theories; he is presenting one view to be dismantled, and another to be exalted as correct. But giving selective evidence could bias his readers towards his view, and I am not convinced I was given a chance to really evaluate the competing theories. I anxiously await the rebuttal by the connectionist school.
If you have read Pinker's popular books before, I can only say that this book is not at the same level. Its scope is much narrower, and its subject matter a bit more technical. That being said, if you love Pinker's way of presenting material, you will not be disappointed. If you haven't read Pinker before, I recommend that you start with one of his other books - they truly live up to their reputations.
on February 9, 2000
Whoever would think that an entire book could be written on the subject of verbs: regular and irregular. But Pinker does a dynamic job of making language sing. He recognizes the liquidity of language, its morphing and morphosis of rules, and its complete fascination. This is the third Pinker book I have read - and can't wait for the next one. I jumped into this one expecting repetition from his other books, but he continues to surprise us with completely new slants about language, completely new examples. Only his expertise and broad sense of humor remain familiar. I have to read slowly so I can absorb all the nuances suggested. Still, I hate to lay the book down. Major entertainment and fascinating information.
on March 30, 2006
In Words and Rules, Pinker manages to condense and tie together an unbelievable amount of research. Reading this book carefully (i.e. really absorbing the densely packed information) and looking up some of its references is probably equivalent to a good undergraduate degree in linguistics.
Pinker has a knack for teasing apart all the different threads that make up a hugely complex subject, exploring each one with arguments and data from different academic currents, and then tying them up again so the reader can form a much better picture of the whole. And that's exactly what he does in this flawlessly well-written book.
The only problem with Words and Rules is its packaging: it's marketed as a popular science book for the general public, but unlike The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, it can probably only be properly appreciated by either serious "language hobbyists" or linguists (I am both).
If you don't have a fairly good background, or at least a serious interest, in linguistics, you'll probably find this book too dense (at any rate, it's definitely not "light reading"). If you're a linguist (pure or applied), here's another real gem from Steven Pinker.
on August 23, 2000
If you read Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" already you will probably enjoy reading this book. I think this book is somewhat harder to read, though, because of its topic. This book mainly deals with regular and irregular verbs. Yikes! Irregular verbs are a nightmare for students - especially if they are learning a foreign language. Believe me, my native language is German and I really hated having to learn all those weird combinations like "go - went - gone". Where does that come from? I have to admit that German is not much better - in fact, Pinker deals with the German language in a full chapter.
I always wondered why the verbs we most frequently use are so ridiculously irregular. Why not "go - goed - goed"? Wouldn't that be easier? Pinker goes (why "goes"?) through many irregular verbs and explains in full detail where the funky endings come from - it turns out that most of the endings come from old or ancient sources. This part is a little bit dull to read if you're not really thrilled by all the subtleties but it is still very nice to see why the most commonly used verbs are irregular.
PS: I fear having read though all the wrong examples Pinker gives scrod up my knowledge of irregular verbs somewhat. I will ask my friends to blame it on him. ;-)
on October 25, 1999
I rank this book ahead of How the Mind Works and behind the Language Instinct, but all three were quite informative and enjoyable. Pinker has returned to his core compentency- linguistics. May be a little too narrow for those looking for another philosophy of mind tome.
on September 26, 2001
Pinker's Words and Rules is, in short, an awesome book worthy of the highest praise (at least, I think so). Although I do not feel I can do it justice here, hopefully I can give you enough of a hint of the book's thesis to get you interested.
Pinker establishes from the start that the presence of regular and irregular verbs in all languages can tell us far more than one would immediately think. I must admit that, after reading Pinker's first chapter, I was rather skeptical as to how illuminating this apparently simple phenomenon could be. How can such a commonplace principle reveal some of the most integral components of human mind and language? It was a real pleasure, however, to watch my objections to Pinker's argument fall apart as I read the rest of the book.
Briefly, Pinker traces the development of language in children and touches on many original experiments with a wide range of subjects to suggest that there is a discernible structure in our brains that accommodates the regulars and irregulars. Some (the regulars) need only be stored in root form (e.g., to talk) in our memory; our mind can inflect them appropriately (person, tense, etc.) using built-in rules of language (e.g., just add -ed to get the past tense). Other verbs (the irregulars), however, do not follow the rules; all of their forms must be stored in our lexical memory (e.g., am, are, is, was, were; although related irregulars can lead to mini-patterns that help us inflect new verbs that "seem" irregular). These principles are a shadow of the underlying structure of our minds.
This is, of course, only a minuscule fraction of the information Pinker covers in Words and Rules. Best of all, he has a great sense of humor and a gift for writing that makes all of his ideas perfectly clear. The "knickknacks" of language he relates are all familiar, and yet he uses them brilliantly to make a strong case for the structure of our mind (not so familiar) that he believes is reflected by the principal of verb regularity and irregularity. Admittedly, Pinker becomes somewhat repetitive at times in this book, but I didn't find these lapses particularly troubling (I got the feeling that he could sense the skepticism that some of his readers would have and tried a little too hard to be convincing).
If you have read and enjoyed How the Mind Works and/or The Language Instinct, you will certainly enjoy this book as well (if you have read The Language Instinct, then some of the ideas in Words and Rules will already be familiar to you). If you have not read Pinker yet, this is as good a place to start as any.
on October 10, 2002
This is the first Pinker's book I've read; this may or may not be the best choice. In a flush of serendipity, I started finding references to Dr. Pinker and his works elsewhere; turns out he is considered one of the pivotal figures of modern evolutionary psychology and an archenemy of New Age, feminist and other postmodern, erm, thinkers. That alone could have driven me to his works; but I stumbled upon this book by pure chance, and I am very glad I did.
"Words and rules", as its title suggests, is a less ambitious and more technical book than "The Language Instinct" or "How the Mind Works". It is likely to produce less controversy. It is less than friendly for readers without background in linguistics. There are very few far-reaching conjectures - most of the stories Pinker recounts are solid, scientifically verified data.
However, the consequences which follow are disturbing and unusual. The seemingly trivial question of regular and irregular words in languages, and English irregular verbs in particular, has major repercussions for this other question Dr. Pinker had tackled earlier - how the mind works.
To try to sum it up: in language acquisition and language use, humans employ two systems: memory and structure, lexicon and grammar, words and rules. They are interdependent, but distinctly separate. Their separation in human minds is illustrated by numerous examples from children's speech mistakes, speech impediments in people with various brain injuries, and neurological data, obtained by more or less direct observation of brain activity. All languages depend heavily on words; you cannot use even Esperanto unless you have mastered its basic vocabulary. As for rules, their participation in speech differs from language to language, but there is no language which does not use rules at all. People resort to rules whenever there is a failure of access to memory. For example, if you encounter a nonsense verb - "to squink" - you are much more likely to form its past tense as "squinked", not "squank", because you do not have any "squank" in your memory bank, and the regular "-ed" suffix jumps into play immediately. Pinker convincingly shows in one of the most amazing chapters of his book, that regularity does not necessarily mean statistical prevalence; true, there are many more regular verbs in English than irregulars; but in German, for example, the default plural of nouns is formed by the *least* frequent suffix, which just happens to be regular and therefore resides in the "rules" domain rather than in "words".
No specific language is innate; no serious scholar would dispute it. Whether there are any linguistic universalia, is, as far as I understand, still debatable. Pinker's approach is, however, one step higher; it deals with the language instinct, with the innate ability to implement communication through language - and the tools which organize it into a system. It is probably more complex than the dualism of words and rules; but as a first approximation, as a working model it seems to be the step in the right - and necessary - direction.
Why necessary? Because, as Pinker argues, now is the first time in history when we can start bridging the gap between humanities and science. Because the academic research in history, languages and literature can finally justify itself by coming closer to its ultimate, though probably misunderstood in the past, goal - to know how the mind works. That is what humanities are about; that is where they can join efforts with science to come closer to that goal.
For me that was the central message of the book (spelled - or spelt? - out by the author in the final chapter). Jokes, cartoons and extracts from the writings of "language mavens" are never out of place, always to the point; and the jocular plurals of "harmonicae, fives and dra" left me breathless with laughter. This is a scholarly book, not light reading; and if you treat it as such, you'd see it for the marvellous achievement it is.
on March 14, 2000
Steve Pinker is one of the top minds in psychology--his thinking is principled but empirically grounded, his explanations are simple but true to the facts, his theories are imaginative but utterly testable. On any topic he's discussing, one always gets the sense from Pinker that that issue is just one piece of an entire clockwork of knowledge.
Never have Pinker's virtues been more evident than in "Words and Rules." From his masterful treatment of the devoicing rule to his explanation of why compounds do and do not contain plurals to what we should *really* be learning from child language errors, Pinker teaches us what language use tells us about the mind.
Given the quality of Pinker's argument, it is unfortunate that Pinker's writing style has become almost a parody of itself. Where the "Language Instinct" treated the reader to a few irreverant allusions and lively examples, "Words and Rules" bogs down the logic of the argument with so many popular attention-getting examples (which will be unintelligible in a decade) that it is difficult to see the forest for the tacky billboards. How many examples of overregularization do we really need? When fretting over having *two* mental mechanisms rather than one (who but a monist would care?), do we need to know how the poet Empson described the Latin philosopher Lucretius? The result is a hodgepodge of equally superfluous erudition and showmanship, like a professor trying to impress the kids in the first row while keeping the kids in the back of the class awake.
A book this good doesn't need to be hucked.
on August 25, 2006
I have read both the Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, and I'd say this one ranks below both of those. While the book is filled with very interesting facts about verbs and language acquistion, I found it too long and tedious.. I felt like I was plowing through.
For those wanting to get most of the information from this book and not "plow" - I'd read chapters 1-3 (The Infinite Library, Dissection by Linguistics, Broken Telephone) and then 7 (Kids Say the Darndest Things), and then 10 (A Digital Mind in an Analog World). Readers taking this approach can skim the other chapters to see if they are of interest.
I found Chapter 7 to be the most interesting, as I have a young two year old acquiring language. Naturally, I'd like to have seen that section expanded. That chapter was (to me) the most revealing of the entire book.
on June 4, 2011
As many other's have pointed out, this book has been inappropriately marketed. Having some background in neuroscience and some possible future work in the linguistics field, I had reasonable expectations that this would be a mid-level overview of the structure and functioning of language with regard to our brains' techniques for processing / producing it. This is fairly far from the mark. It is instead mostly about the actual words and rules of language - specifically english verbs. I felt like I was back in 7th grade grammar class as he carried on example after example ad infinitum. I first started skimming, then skipping paragraphs, chapters... the rest of the book.
It is very well written - amazingly so at times - and I think if the above is what your after you will not be let down. I debated not reviewing it though given the nature of the expectations (based on comments, reviews, etc.) I think my sentiments will hold true for many would be readers --> Make sure this is the material you think it is before buying. Most would be better off grabbing one of this other works (language instinct, blank slate).