January 11, 2005

Steven Pinker: Words and Rules -- Not the How, But the Why

by PAT CUMMINGS American Digest Book Editor

Language comes so naturally that it is easy to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is... We humans are fitted with a means of sharing our ideas, in all their unfathomable vastness... Yet to me the first and deepest challenge in understanding language is accounting for its boundless expressive power. What is the trick behind our ability to fill one another's heads with so many different ideas?
Steven Pinker has a strong claim to the niche his books occupy: He explains in language accessible to the layman how our brains work. In Words and Rules, Pinker expands on the language-development concepts he introduced in The Language Instinct and How We Think, to give us a clearer picture of why* this language "trick" works.

Pinker tosses out ideas like popcorn pouring from the movie-theatre machine:

Whoa, too much popcorn! Pinker makes these concepts easy enough to acquire, because he provides a structure to fit them into. And that is precisely his premise. Our brains are structured to acquire language. This is a fascinating book, and gives a fair voice to competing theories of language development.

*If you're interested more in the How, I recommend the light-hearted "zero-tolerance approach" of Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss for punctuation. See How Languages Are Learned by Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada, for a different look at the "how" of language acquisition.

Pat Cummings, constant reader, also reviews books at his site Paper Frigate, and at Blogcritics as well. He can be emailed here.]

Posted by Vanderleun at January 11, 2005 11:12 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

For an interesting and well-reasoned critique of Pinker's view, see http://www.grsampson.net/REmpNat.html

(I have no opinion either way; just think it's interesting to look at both side.)

Posted by: Scott Lawton at January 12, 2005 7:08 AM

Thanks, Scott. I have to say I enjoyed Words and Rules, but mostly because I was already familiar with many of the linguistic concepts. If I had not been, the sound of ricochets would have been deafening...

Posted by: DrPat at January 14, 2005 9:33 PM