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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates the Gift of Language Hardcover – February 1, 1994

4.1 out of 5 stars 204 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A three-year-old toddler is "a grammatical genius"--master of most constructions, obeying adult rules of language. To Pinker, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psycholinguist, the explanation for this miracle is that language is an instinct, an evolutionary adaptation that is partly "hard-wired" into the brain and partly learned. In this exciting synthesis--an entertaining, totally accessible study that will regale language lovers and challenge professionals in many disciplines--Pinker builds a bridge between "innatists" like MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who hold that infants are biologically programmed for language, and "social interactionists" who contend that they acquire it largely from the environment. If Pinker is right, the origins of language go much further back than 30,000 years ago (the date most commonly given in textbooks)--perhaps to Homo habilis , who lived 2.5 million years ago, or even eons earlier. Peppered with mind-stretching language exercises, the narrative first unravels how babies learn to talk and how people make sense of speech. Professor and co-director of MIT's Center for Cognitive Science, Pinker demolishes linguistic determinism, which holds that differences among languages cause marked differences in the thoughts of their speakers. He then follows neurolinguists in their quest for language centers in the brain and for genes that might help build brain circuits controlling grammar and speech. Pinker also argues that claims for chimpanzees' acquisition of language (via symbols or American Sign Language) are vastly exaggerated and rest on skimpy data. Finally, he takes delightful swipes at "language mavens" like William Safire and Richard Lederer, accusing them of rigidity and of grossly underestimating the average person's language skills. Pinker's book is a beautiful hymn to the infinite creative potential of language. Newbridge Book Clubs main selection; BOMC and QPB alternates.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Following fast on the heels of Joel Davis's Mother Tongue ( LJ 12/93) is another provocative and skillfully written book by an MIT professor who specializes in the language development of children. While Pinker covers some of the same ground as did Davis, he argues that an "innate grammatical machinery of the brain" exists, which allows children to "reinvent" language on their own. Basing his ideas on Noam Chomsky's Universal Grammar theory, Pinker describes language as a "discrete combinatorial system" that might easily have evolved via natural selection. Pinker steps on a few toes (language mavens beware!), but his work, while controversial, is well argued, challenging, often humorous, and always fascinating. Most public and academic libraries will want to add this title to their collections.
- Laurie Bartolini, Lincoln Lib., Springfield, Ill.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 494 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow & Company; 1st edition (February 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0688121411
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688121419
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (204 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #214,310 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Paperback
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."
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Format: Paperback
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.Read more ›
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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!
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