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Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language Paperback – October 24, 2000
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About the Author
One of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World Today," Steven Pinker is the author of seven books, including How the Mind Works and The Blank Slateboth Pulitzer Prize finalists and winners of the William James Book Award. He is an award-winning researcher and teacher, and a frequent contributor to Time and the New York Times.
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about language and other topics related to psychology. He is also currently a psychology professor at Harvard University. The book looks at words and rules, which are what language consists of and helps us understand language. Steven Pinker’s language in this book makes it very easy for the reader to understand complex information about how our brain works the way it does when it comes to language. He provides real-life examples and things that are “relatable” in order to better explain his findings to the reader.
The book begins with Pinker describing the “mental dictionary,” which is described almost as similarly as vocabulary by Pinker, in which a string of letters and sounds is associated with something, whether it be an object, person, place, or thing. After the idea of a “mental dictionary,” is interested, Pinker goes into details about the “combinatorial system,” which is when words provide an infinite number of combinations which can become into phrases and sentences and paragraphs. But because of grammar and other rules that we learn throughout our lives, these combinations go down immensely. After explaining these two phenomena, he emphasizes the title of the book by explaining that the understanding of words and rules are critical in the dissection of language. Then, regular and irregular verbs are brought up which gives a better look into the rules, because a study is done on 7-year olds showing that kids add –s to make a word plural and add –ed to make a word past tense, despite never hearing the word before. After this, he brings up irregular verbs and how there are way less of these than regular verbs and these require to store them in your “mental dictionary.” Pinker also examines how our brains react to new words. He explains this with the “words and rules” theory, which states that people use rules for regular verbs and people use their memory and patterns for irregular verbs. Pinker points out that regular verbs do not have to be retrieved by the memory at all, while people have to rely on their memory for irregular verbs in order to dig up similar irregular verbs and apply its rules to a new irregular word. Another theory that is closely looked at is the “word structure theory,” in which people understand that a word or a phrase hails from another word, but might not know why or how. In this book, Pinker also closely examines children and the mistakes they make of added –ed to past-tense irregular verbs (goed) and sometimes even –ed to past-tense irregular verbs that they have said correctly, such as wented (went). Pinker then explains his theory of the blocking principle, which is when children need to listen to past-tense irregular verbs being said in order for them to register in their minds that certain words are irregular and you cannot just add –ed to the ending. Also, he adds that a parent correcting their child when they use an ungrammatical word is ineffective. He mentions that parents correcting their children does not work, because children have the rules in their head and apply them and that the rules for irregular verbs must be learned. Toward the end of the book, Pinker goes into the brain and its significance in language. He demonstrates how damage in different parts of the brain could affect different parts of speech; for example, more damage could be done to the mental grammar than the mental dictionary. He then concludes the book by explaining that our mind is digital because we remember rules but also have to retrieve specific information.
Steve Pinker’s book explaining words and rules is full of examples which are relatable to whoever is reading which makes it easier to follow along throughout the book and understand what he is trying to say. By providing an example everyone can connect with, about the younger people mispronouncing words he emphasizes his theory of “words and rules” by taking the reader back to his or her earliest stages of learning to speak. The various studies mentioned throughout the book, primarily involving children, are crucial to Pinker’s argument about irregular verbs and what our brain can pick up immediately versus what is recorded through patterns, like his study involving children and how they can correct themselves despite picking the wrong verbiage. His explanation of ways in which people try to substitute our understanding of ‘irregular’ verbs is well explained, by his pointing out that it would take us several seconds, or even minutes, to decipher the word we were trying to say if we used some of the more complex systems people have tried coming up with throughout history. One complaint I do have about the book though is the various charts that do not seem to help me with the underlying message of what he is trying to get across. The book could do without them and still be legible and clear. The dialogues of fresh English-speakers present in the book are good at illustrating the different points he is making about language and what the trouble areas are for them and what is simple for them. When explaining irregular verbs, he provides a string of the same word in different forms to illustrate the patterns involved in knowing and retrieving them. Also, throughout the book there are illustrations, such as the one of the brain, that shows different damages in different areas of the brain, and there also little comic strips throughout the book. These illustrations support the argument he is making. Overall, it was an informative book that explained the mechanisms of our language and how we learn and react to it.
This book about language by Steven Pinker is a well-written, informative book that delves deeper into regular and irregular verbs and our minds. The various studies and illustrations throughout the book help illustrate he’s making at the point the illustration shows up. Pinker uses his words well to explain his words and rules theory about language, and it is fun to read.
That said, delving into the minutiae of how the brain works is ultimately rewarding, even if I only understood maybe 75% of this. Watching vicariously as Pinker et al close in how how we think and talk is truly awesome. I find myself paying close attention to how I speak; how I hesitate in choosing words; what associations I seem to need to find a word or person... . Very cool, though you can probably get sucked into some kind of fugue state if you overdo it.
Still highly recommended, but make sure you're snowed in somewhere and have a lot of coffee.
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.
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And Steven Pinker's prose is a lot more inspiring & fun than nearly all linguistics writers.
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.Read more