The Language Instinct

by Steven Pinker

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1858

The publication of Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957) changed forever the way people concerned with language would look upon it. Within a decade of its publication, the teaching of the new Chomskian transformational-generative grammar was being widely mandated in schools throughout the United States. A cottage industry developed to produce textbooks based on the transformational-generative approach to language, some in series that had one book for each grade from three through twelve, such as the series created by Paul Roberts and published by Harcourt Brace.

The appearance of these series, however well-intentioned and intelligent they were, backfired in many instances because teachers, unable to understand the highly technical approach to language promulgated by Chomsky, even as simplified for popular consumption by Roberts and others, in many cases simply gave up teaching grammar, even though all sorts of summer workshops on the new grammar attracted hordes of participants, as did the workshops offered by publishers trying to promote their new, highly lucrative product. The books sold briskly. For the most part, however, they collected dust on classroom shelves.

Chomsky contended in Syntactic Structures, as well as in his later Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Language and Mind (1968; rev. ed. 1972), and Rules and Representations (1980) that language as it is used universally is governed by “super rules.” Individual language groups—Romance, Germanic, Oriental, Arabic, African—possess their own distinguishing characteristics and vocabularies, but underlying all language, according to Chomsky, are universal rules and sounds that constitute human language.

Children born into a given language environment quickly assimilate and use the characteristics peculiar to the language environments into which they are born, but all languages and families of languages have common elements, syntactic structures, of which every human in some mysterious way has an underlying awareness. More than any other factor, it is human beings’ ability to use language that distinguishes them from other biological forms.

The Language Instinct explores many of the areas of language into which Chomsky and his followers had long been delving. Steven Pinker warns his readers that his book is about spoken rather than written language, and that it is not about the English language per se. The Language Instinct does not deal with the niceties of grammar, punctuation, usage, or other schoolmarmish considerations. Rather, it is a broad, well-informed study that considers language as it exists among, and is used by, human beings throughout the world. It poses pertinent questions about how human language came into being.

Pinker, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and where, incidentally, Chomsky has spent his professional career, has long been interested in language acquisition among young children. He contends that language is genetically programmed into human beings, who then develop the ability to speak the particular varieties of language present in their environments.

In support of his highly controversial thesis, Pinker points out that people begin to talk in much the same way that spiders begin to spin webs: no one specifically teaches them language, yet they seem genetically predisposed to developing an ability to use it. Fully understanding what a highly charged word “instinct” is to educated people, and especially to psychologists, Pinker nevertheless makes the conscious decision to use that word when he speaks about how children learn to talk.

Those with opposing views might contend that children learn to talk by imitating the people who surround them, and, up to a point, even Pinker would admit to the partial validity of such a statement. Imitation, however, does not explain why two-year-olds reared in an environment...

(This entire section contains 1858 words.)

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in which relatively standard English is spoken consistently will say things like “they drived” or “I drinked,” when certainly that is not the form of the past tense of these irregular verbs used by the people around them.

Pinker also suggests that young children in their most egocentric stages do not imitate the behaviors of adults. Their parents may be sedate, considerate airline passengers, for example, whereas their two- or three-year-olds may be noisy hellions, annoying everyone within earshot of them.

No one has taught these same two- or three-year-olds in any formal way such grammatical structures as subordinate clauses, compound and complex sentences, or the subjunctive, yet, by the time children reach those ages, they are employing quite naturally every grammatical structure their language possesses. Something inherent apparently drives them linguistically.

On the other hand, if their language requires sounds strange to some ears, such as the glottal click of some African languages or the umlaut in German, they quite naturally use the glottal click or the umlaut, presumably because they are imitating the sounds they most commonly hear in their environments. Ten-year-old Albanians, having grown up in an environment in which the glottal click is not used would have great difficulty trying to acquire it at their linguistically advanced age.

Pinker deviates from many earlier linguists by pointing out that language is not a cultural artifact like telling time or understanding the workings of the internal combustion engine. These are abilities that can be, and frequently are, taught. Language, however, develops naturally in young children. In the language they develop, communicating is the only criterion of correctness. If they say, “He don’t got none,” they are communicating. The nonstandard forms they use—the double negative, “got” for “have,” and “he don’t”—do not mask the meaning of the sentence. It is only an artificial cultural overlay that makes that sentence seem incorrect to some people. It would be more valid to call it, in some cultural settings, inappropriate.

A grammatical error in English occurs if someone says something like, “To New York going accountant the was.” No native speaker of English would structure a sentence in this way because, by violating the inherent genetic code of which Pinker speaks, it obscures meaning.

Language study has flourished since the publication of Syntactic Structures largely because of the rise of a relatively new field of study, cognitive science, a burgeoning interdisciplinary field that uses the most sophisticated tools of psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neurobiology to unlock the mysteries of how humans function mentally. The rise of computers and the need to program them in highly sophisticated ways have led armies of scholars to deep understandings of what constitutes human intelligence, as such scholars have groped their way along in their highly complex attempts to devise artificial intelligences.

Pinker explains how inductive processes help children, as well as more mature speakers, to make incredibly sophisticated language categorizations. He notes that the verb “fly,” in English, is a strong (irregular) verb whose past tense is “flew”: “I fly home once a week”; “I flew home yesterday.” Within a given cultural context, the irregular past tense is usual.

On the other hand, in a different cultural context, that of the baseball stadium, “fly” has a regular past tense: “The batter flied out twice in one game.” One might argue that “fly out” is a different verb from “fly,” therefore it is not governed by the same conventions. For whatever reason, it does not take great linguistic sophistication for the average person over the age of five to make the distinction between these two possible past tenses.

Pinker cites Theodore M. Bernstein as mentioning in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (1977) that “flied out” is used rather than “flew out” because in this instance, “fly” has a specialized meaning. This explanation, however, does not satisfy Pinker, who mentions that “see a bet,” “cut a deal,” and “take the count” all have specialized meanings, but that their past tenses use the irregular form of the verb as it is used in more conventional contexts.

Similarly, with a nominal like “life,” the plural is made by adding -s but also requires an internal change: “lives,” spelled the same as the third person singular of the verbal “live,” yet pronounced differently. Native speakers quickly learn to make the pronunciation distinction between nominal and verbal forms of “live,” although they do not consciously ask themselves whether they are using a noun or a verb. They intuit the appropriate form.

They also know that if they use “life” in a compound form such as “low-life,” the plural is “low-lifes” in most dialects of English. They may, regardless of their social levels, however, have difficulty with “hoof/hooves” and “roof/roofs,” because the conventions governing these two pairs are not clear-cut to most people, although in each instance above, the plural form given is the preferred one.

Such considerations have become increasingly important as industrial countries have moved into a society whose very existence depends upon the accuracy of computers. Despite their ability to store and process mountains of information, computers cannot intuit, as anyone realizes who has typed in a “:” where a “” is required. Cognitive scientists since Chomsky have sought to dissect language and to analyze linguistic behaviors in such minute ways as to approach understanding how the finest linguistic distinctions are made.

The human intellect, which has the ability to intuit, understands from context the difference between the word “bank” as it is used in sentences such as, “They put their money in the bank,” “They sat on the bank of the river,” “Don’t bank on having a car waiting when you arrive,” “The pilot should bank his plane to the right before trying to land,” and “Please bank the snow toward the end of the driveway.” Computers programmed to translate documents from one language to another often produce bizarre translations when confronted with such variations in the meanings of specific words that appear in the texts they are programmed to translate. Pinker is most concerned with understanding the intricate thought systems and responses that make humans able to intuit meaning in such situations.

Chomsky focused initially on understanding the deep structures through which language and linguistic variations are generated. Pinker, however, has moved beyond such considerations (as did Chomsky in his later work) into a concern with the dynamics of language as they relate to understanding, particularly in some of the eerie reaches of linguistic sophistication whose unlocking modern technology makes possible on the one hand, and, on the other hand, persistently demands.

Chomsky is a linguist’s linguist, whereas Pinker has made a conscious effort to be a populist linguist, writing, certainly, about exceptionally complex and intellectually demanding topics, yet writing always with a keen sense of what examples and explanations are required to allow reasonably intelligent general readers to under-stand what he is saying. He writes with wit, stylistic vibrancy, and an undisguised enthusiasm for language. General readers will not breeze through his book in a single sitting. They will, however, find themselves richly rewarded if they make the effort to read the book closely and studiously.

Sources for Further Study

Antioch Review. LII, Summer, 1994, p. 534.

The Atlantic. CCLXXIII, March, 1994, p. 130.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. June 15, 1994, p. 8.

The Economist. CCCXXXI, April 9, 1994, p. 95.

National Review. XLVI, April 18, 1994, p. 50.

Nature. CCCLXVIII, March 24, 1994, p. 360.

New Republic. CCX, January 31, 1994, p. 19.

New Scientist. CXLII, June 25, 1994, p. 28.

New Statesman and Society. VII, April 8, 1994, p. 36.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, February 27, 1994, p. 7.