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The language instinct: How the mind creates language Unknown Binding – 1995
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|Unknown Binding, 1995||
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
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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.
Pinker, one of the acknowledged greats in the 30-year-young field of linguistics, explores the ability of humans to think and to communicate in language from a variety of angles and with reference to many different fields of study.
Topics covered include: - the structure/grammar of language and for comparative languages - the 'correctness' of standard American English and self-designated "language mavens". - structures and regions of the brain which seem to control our ability to speak - observations on the relationship between age and learning language - evolutionary theory and how come only humans can talk? - universal characteristics of all human cultures and all human grammars - animals who have been trained to "talk"
Pinker may or may not be 100% right, but his thinking is clear-headed and his view of humanity is refreshing, in that it is both broad enough to cover every speaking (human) culture, and specific enough to rely on individually observed and experimental evidence in describing the ways we learn.
THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT: HOW THE MIND CREATES LANGUAGE by Prof. Pinker is a great book on the biology/evolution of human language. It has helped me understand the rationale for Chomsky's GENERATIVE GRAMMAR, esp., X-bar theory of syntax. I've learned from this book what I failed to grasp as a student of Applied Linguistics (which I studied at Indiana University.)
It reads like a story book. Prof. Pinker has an amazing power to explain, with examples, analogies and metaphors drawn from various fields. I found that every paragraph in the chapters is full of revealing research results and has so much new to tell the curious reader.
I canft help quote some of the many passages in the book took me right to the core of GENERATIVE SYNTAX/X-bar theory:
(1) "... language is not just any cultural invention but the product of a special human instinct." (p. 14)
(2) "When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of ASSAM [north-east India]."
(3) "... language acquisition cannot be explained as a kind of IMITATION."
(4) "Many biologists have capitalized on the close parallel between the principles of GRAMMATICAL combination and the principles of GENETIC combination. In the technical language of genetics, sequences of DNA are said to contain "letters" and "punctuation;" may be "palindromic," "meaningless," or "synonymous;" are "transcribed" and "translated;" and even stored in "libraries." The immunologist Niels Jerne entitled his Nobel Prize address "The Generative Grammar of the Immune System." (p. 76)
(5) "Chomsky suggests that the unordered SUPER-RULES (principles) are universal and innate, and when children learn a particular language, they do not have to learn a long list of rules, because they were born knowing the super-rules. All they have to learn is whether their particular language has the PARAMETER value head-first, as in English, or head last, as in Japanese." (p. 104)
(6) "Now the story begins to get more interesting. You must have noticed that NOUN PHRASES and VERB PHRASES have a lot in common: (1) head..., (2) role-players..., (3) modifiers..., and (4) a subject... The orderings inside a Noun Phrase and inside a Verb Phrase are the same... It seems as if there is a standard design to the two phrases." (p. 102)
(7) "Phrase structure, then, is one solution to the engineering problem of taking an interconnected web of thoughts in the mind and encoding them as a string of words that must be uttered, one at a time, by the mouth." (p. 94)
(8) "It allows one component (a phrase) to SNAP into any of the several positions inside other components (larger phrases). Once a phrase is defined by a rule and is given its connector symbol, it never has to be defined again; the phrase can be PLUGGED in anywhere there is a corresponding socket." (p. 92)
(9) In Chapter 4 (How Language Works), on page 103, Prof. Pinker provides the ANATOMY OF AN X PHRASE. [Quote begins]
"With this common design, there is no need to write out a long list of RULES TO CAPTURE WHAT IS INSIDE A SPEAKERfS HEAD. There may be just ONE PAIR OF SUPER-RULES for the entire language, where the distinction among NOUNS, VERBS, PREPOSITIONS, and ADJECTIVES, are collapsed and all four are specified with a variable like "X." Since a phrase just inherits the properties of its head..., it's redundant to call a phrase headed by a noun a "noun phrase" -- we could just call it an "X phrase," since the nounhood of the head noun, like the manhood of the head noun and all other information in the head noun, percolates up to characterize the whole phrase. Here is what the SUPER-RULES look like....:
XP ¨ (SPEC) X [x-bar] YP* [sorry, couldnft find the x-bar symbol]
["A phrase consists of an optional subject, followed by an X-bar, followed by any number of modifiers."]
X [x-bar] ¨ X ZP*
["An X-bar consists of a head word, followed by any number of role-players."]
Just plug in NOUN, VERB, ADJECTIVE, or PREPOSITION, for X, Y, and Z, and you have the actual phrase structure rules that spell the phrases. This streamlined version of phrase structure is called "the X-bar theory."
This general BLUEPRINT for phrases extends even farther, to other languages..." [end of quote, p. 103]
Some other quotes on universality of language and how children acquire it are notable:
(10) "... the ability of children to generalize to an infinite number of potential sentences depends on their analyzing parental speech using a fixed set of mental categories." (p. 434)
(11) "For language acquisition, what is the innate SIMILARITY SPACE that allows children to generalize from sentences in the parents' speech to the "similar" sentences that define the rest of English.(p. 433)
(12) "The banter among New Guinean highlanders in the film of their first contact with rest of the world, the motions of a sign language interpreter, the prattle of little girls in a Tokyo playground -- I imagine seeing through the rhythms to the structures underneath,and sense that we all have the same minds." (p. 448)
M. Solaiman Ali, Ph.D.
Technical Report Writing Instructor
School of Engineering
King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah