The Language Instinct | Steven Pinker

Summary of: The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language
By: Steven Pinker


Language is an undeniably powerful tool that comes naturally to human beings. In the book, ‘The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language,’ renowned author Steven Pinker delves into the intriguing world of linguistics, grammar, and cognitive psychology. From how babies have an innate grasp of grammar to how the human brain processes complex sentences, the book unpacks the mechanics of language while shedding light on the significance of the language instinct. As you read this summary, you will embark on a fascinating journey through the origins, principles, and impact of human language, and how it shapes our communication and perceptions of the world.

Innate Grammar Knowledge

Did you ever wonder how you learned to speak? According to Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar theory, all babies are born with an innate understanding of grammar. This means that we don’t learn grammar in school, but we already know it before we’re born! The poverty of the stimulus supports this theory – children understand grammatical structures they couldn’t have learned. Even deaf children use correct grammar in sign language, proving that they have an innate knowledge of grammar.

The Fallacy of Linguistic Relativity

The Whorfian hypothesis, or linguistic relativity, suggests that the language we speak influences the way we perceive the world. However, this idea lacks a foundation. The hypothesis was proposed by Benjamin Whorf, a linguist who claimed that speakers of different languages experience reality in different ways. Whorf argued that the structure and vocabulary of Native American languages influenced the way speakers saw the world. Yet, it was discovered that Whorf never actually studied the language in person. His translations were also far from accurate, and this mystical element was found in translations from any language. Furthermore, the belief that individuals see colors differently based on their mother tongue cannot be true since language cannot modify their physiology. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax debunked the myth that Eskimos have numerous words for snow. The hypothesis of linguistic relativity is therefore unfounded, and we should avoid basing assumptions on this fallacy.

The Two Principles of Human Language

Human language follows two principles that make communication possible. The first principle is the arbitrariness of the sign, which means we pair a sound with a meaning through rote learning. This allows us to transfer ideas near-instantaneously without rationalization. The second principle is that language makes infinite use of finite media, meaning we have a finite set of words that we can combine to create an infinite number of sentences. Grammar governs these combinations and allows us to arrange words in specific ways to evoke specific meanings. While the number of words is finite, grammar gives us an infinite number of ways to use them. These principles are fundamental to human language and enable us to communicate with ease.

The Grammar of Language

Language is composed of morphemes which are governed by morphological rules. Humans have an innate ability to form plurals and generate new words. Various languages differ in terms of inflectional and derivational morphology. Despite their differences, they all serve the purpose of communicating effectively.

Language is not just a result of putting words together. It is composed of morphemes, the smallest bits of grammatical information. These morphemes are governed by the rules of morphology. For example, by adding the morpheme for pluralization, the suffix ‘-s’ to the end of “wug,” we get a group of “wugs.” Children instinctively know morphological rules, which indicates that these rules are innate.

English lacks in inflectional morphology, but it makes up for it with derivational morphology. Derivational morphology is the creation of new words from old. By adding the suffix ‘-able’ to the word ‘learn,’ we create a new word “learnable.” Comparatively, the Tanzanian language Kivunjo is quite sophisticated when it comes to inflectional morphology. It can change the verb’s meaning by using seven prefixes and suffixes, all of which are morphemes.

While various languages differ in terms of inflectional and derivational morphology, they all serve the purpose of communicating effectively. We do not learn grammar rules but can understand them intrinsically. In conclusion, every language’s unique structure serves to convey an extensive range of messages, and it helps to provide meaning to the human experience of communicating with one another.

The Mystery of Speech Recognition

Speech recognition remains a puzzle despite significant technological evolution. While computers can analyze and recognize written words with ease, converting spoken words accurately poses a significant challenge. The biggest impediment to speech recognition lies in the process of coarticulation, where the sounds of each phoneme blend into each other during speech. As a result, the acoustic signature of each phoneme varies significantly, making it difficult for computers to recognize them without context. Although some scholars suggest that we can decipher the complex sounds of speech from context, it appears unlikely due to the pace of normal conversation. Despite the mystery surrounding how our brains handle speech recognition, we excel at it.

Decoding Written Language

Understanding how the brain parses written language by breaking it down and interpreting its grammatical structure is the key to understanding meaning. Linguists have determined the two types of parsing using depth-first and breadth-first search. Depth-first search involves looking at entire sentences, while breadth-first search analyzes individual words to comprehend meaning. Garden path sentences are perfect examples of how the brain sometimes picks the wrong meaning, potentially causing confusion. The author delves into where our language ability comes from next.

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