- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (January 15, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060958405
- ISBN-13: 978-0060958404
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,702,432 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language Paperback – October 24, 2000
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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).
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
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