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Words and Rules: The Ingredients Of Language (Science Masters Series) Paperback – July 14, 2015
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Human languages are capable of expressing a literally endless number of different ideas. How do we manage it--so effortlessly that we scarcely ever stop to think about it? In Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, a look at the simple concepts that we use to devise works as complex as love sonnets and tax laws, renowned neuroscientist and linguist Steven Pinker shows us how. The latest linguistic research suggests that each of us stores a limited (though large) number of words and word-parts in memory and manipulates them with a much smaller number of rules to produce every writing and utterance, and Pinker explains every step of the way with engaging good humor.
Pinker's enthusiasm for the subject infects the reader, particularly as he emphasizes the relation between how we communicate and how we think. What does it mean that a small child who has never heard the word wug can tell a researcher that when one wug meets another, there are two wugs? Some rule must be telling the child that English plurals end in -s, which also explains mistakes like mouses. Is our communication linked inextricably with our thinking? Pinker says yes, and it's hard to disagree. Words and Rules is an excellent introduction to and overview of current thinking about language, and will greatly reward the careful reader with new ways of thinking about how we think, talk, and write. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
MIT linguist Pinker builds on his previous successes (How the Mind Works; The Language Instinct) with another book explaining how we learn and deploy word, phrase and utterance. Some linguists (notably Noam Chomsky) have argued that everything in speech comes from hidden, hard-wired rules. Others (notably some computer scientists) claim that we learn language by association, picking up raw data first. Pinker argues that our brains exhibit both kinds of thought, and that we can see them both in English verbs: rule application ("combination") governs regular verbs, memory ("lookup") handles irregulars. The interplay of the two characterizes all language, perhaps all thought. Each of Pinker's 10 chapters takes up a different field of research, but all 10 concern regular and irregular forms of words. Pinker shows what scientists learn from children's speech errors (My brother got sick and pukeded); from survey questions (What do you call more than one wug?); from similar rules in varying languages (English, German and Arapesh); from theoretical models and their failings and from brain disorders like jargon anomia (whose victims use complex sentences, but say things like "nose cone" when they mean "phone call"). Sometimes Pinker explains linguists' current consensus; at other times, he makes a case for his own theoretical school. His previous books have been accused of excessive ambition; here he largely sticks to his own fields. The result, with its crisp prose and neat analogies, makes required reading for anyone interested in cognition and language. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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If you like to read books which are somewhere along the spectrum between a textbook and a popular science book, this is a great read for you.
It gives many examples of interesting phenomena in a few languages, and it made me think of these ideas relating to languages I know.
Pinker's book explores in great detail the two different systems of the brain that produce language. One is regular and rule-like and produces patterns that range from the regular forms of some verbs to the grammatical and organizational regularities of larger chunks of language. The other is idiosyncratic and irregular and stores pieces of our linguistic competence that frustrate linguists and second-graders alike. Our working language is shaped by the interplay between these systems. They both leave their traces in the historical changes in language, similarities between different languages, the creative mistakes children and adults make while learning language, and in the way we invent and reinvent new words.
This book is recommended to anyone who wants to understand how our mind enables us to use language. Don't worry about being trapped into a narrow dissection of verbs--the book simply uses them as an increasingly-familiar theme to explore larger language issues. And don't shrink from an imagined tangle of technical terminology. Pinker's use of language is as deft as his grasp of it. His book is an enjoyable, as well as an informative read.
The basic idea, that the conjugation of regular verbs is "calculated" by rule, whereas the conjugation of irregular verbs must be memorized, is not hard to grasp. Pinker goes on to show how this idea can be tested: how connectionist (neural-network) models for language learning give different predictions; how different kinds of mistakes can test different aspects of the theory; and so on. He gives an explanation of why English and German, which are closely related languages, have such a different percentage of irregular verbs. (Hint: It has to do with the Battle of Hastings.)
Sometimes I felt that I was being overwhelmed in the details of irregular verbs. However, progress is often made in science by paying attention to the details. This book elevates the level of discussion on the nature of "proper" vs. "improper" verb formation beyond mere opinion and prejudice, to the level of scientific discussion. For an amateur like myself, it's not necessary to remember the intricacies of the argument; but it's nice to see that someone has gone through it.
Kudos to Pinker for demonstrating that the use of language can really be an arena for scientific research.
Most recent customer reviews
And Steven Pinker's prose is a lot more inspiring & fun than nearly all linguistics writers.