Fantasist's Scroll

Fun, Fiction and Strange Things from the Desk of the Fantasist.

9/29/2003

Review: The Language Instinct

Filed under: — Posted by the Fantasist during the Hour of the Hare which is in the early morning.
The moon is Waxing Crescent

A good book, but only for the dedicated.

I recently finished The Language Instinct : How the Mind Creates Language by Stephen Pinker, which is a rather long “proof” of his theory that humans are born with an internal “instinct” for language. It’s a fairly readable book, but it does start to really drag at the end. I wouldn’t recommend it as the first linguistics book for someone new to the field, but it’s not a bad second or third. (For the best introductory book, see my review of Teach Yourself Linguistics.)
But, that being said, it really does a good job of going over some of the basics of linguistics. Pinker explains grammar, phonology, morphology and Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory. In fact, his explanation of phonology is the first that made it clear to me. Of course, I’m a non-linguist and totally self-taught, so take that for what it’s worth. What’s more, Pinker also covers language change and historical linguistics. He talks about these two in terms of how language may have become innate. Or, at least, how the basic grammatical structures may have become innate “instincts” over time. It’s a fascinating view of how language works and how we human beings learn it.
Pinker also debunks several language myths, including the Eskimo “words for snow” myth and the “animals can learn our language” myth. In fact, he spends quite a lot of time talking about the apes that “learned” sign-language. It seems there was more than a little bias in the studies and no small amount of sloppy science, too.

Overall, I found The Language Instinct to be very readable and quite accessible to the average reader. The last hundred pages, or so, dragged since it felt like Pinker was beating a dead horse. If he couldn’t convince his readers in the first 300 pages that there were parts of language that are instinctual, that last 100 pages weren’t going to help.
That being said, though, it’s still a “must read” for anyone doing any conlang work. It explores language from a broad view and provides invaluable insights into how language works. Well, worth the effort to get through the few rough spots.

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