A book by the psychologist Steven Pinker. It attempts to make the case that the ability to speak and understand language is innate, inherited, hardwired on the genetic and cerebral level. On the face of it not an earth-shatteringly radical suggestion, and yet one which has had developmental psychologists, cognitive scientists and linguists hot and bothered for some time now. It all goes back to the Sociobiology controversy, about which more in a node about another book, Defenders of the Truth.

To understand Pinker, one first has to has a rudimentary understanding of Chomsky. His Generative Grammar theory (accepted pretty much universally these days) postulates that every one of us possesses a certain innate capacity for language, an inbuilt grammar. This universality of grammar can, in theory, be traced in every single language in the world - a universal code of rules for human speech. Not being intersted in the politics and details of brain structure and congnitive science, Chomsky stops well short of declaring this ability to have any biological basis - he is a linguist and is interested only in the manifestations of his theory in extant languages.

Pinker helpfully goes the next step. Generative grammar, he postulates, is the external proof of a basically human brain function, a "language organ" in the brain which enables us to acquire and retain language. He goes to great lengths to establish the theoretical possibility of this being so, by comparing the ability to learn language with the elephant's trunk - a wondrous, useful and above all unique evolutional adaptation, but just an adaptation nonetheless.

He doesn't leave it at that, though. Another clue to the universality of language is, well, the universality of language. No human society has ever been encountered that doesn't have one. How can this be explained against the backdrop of diversity we otherwise find in humanity? Moreover, continuing linguistic research is revealing more evidence all the time of the underlying similarities in the foundations of all languages - they all have verbs and nouns, for example, but there are more detailed instances than that.

Furthermore, if language is not innate, then it is acquired, or learned. This however cannot be justified (according to Pinker) after a good look at the way children acquire their first language. He sites some mind boggling statisitcs of the thousands and thousands of words a baby learnes from its first beginning to babble until puberty. Not to mention the rules, exceptions to those rules, semantic fields, tenses, conjugations and whatnot. The human mind simply does not show such learning capacity in any other field. There has to be an inbuilt mechanism helping the child along.

There are several other points Pinker makes which are detailed, well presented and fascinating. His style is fluent and readable, and his scholarship impressive. And yet... I came to this book as part of the choir - being interested both in evolution and linguistics, it never occured to me that there might be a conflict of ideas between the two. Nevertheless, I put down the book with a vague feeling that even though Pinker is manifestly right, he doesn't actually make any argument. Interestingly, a linguist friend of mine came out of one of his lectures with the same feeling. Still, a highly recommended book. It reads extremely well, and if it doesn't convert you to the cause of the language instinct, it will tell you many amusing and fascinating stories about language and linguistics.

The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, Penguin Books 1995.

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