Monday, 30 April 2012

Stephen Pinker- The Language Instinct

The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind
Penguin
Stephen Pinker
1994


"In the speech sound wave, one word runs into the next seamlessly; there are no little silences between spoken words the way there are white spaces between written words. We simply hallucinate word boundaries when we reach the end of a stretch of sound that matches some entry in our mental dictionary.”

I've had a somewhat spotty history with educational non-fiction books in the past; for some reason rather than do the decent, useful thing and absorb the potentially useful information like a pink sponge, my brain has a nasty habit of actively rebelling against things that have the bare-faced cheek to try and teach me anything, kind of like Homer Simpson running outside to chase a squirrel. Things like autobiographies are usually fine, and literature about pop-culture generally get a pass, but scientific fact is always at risk; for example, while I greatly enjoyed Richard Dawkins' fantastically argumentative The God Delusion, when I followed that up with his next book, the more science fact-based The Greatest Show on Earth, my attention struggled. The message? Pop-culture has destroyed my brain.

Nevertheless, linguistic psychologist Stephen Pinker's breakout (and highly regarded) publication captured my attention through its subject matter and promises of scientific revelation in the field of language. The premise of The Language Instinct is Pinker's highly developed take on a theory introduced by Noam Chompsky that the human capability for language exists innately, produced through evolutionary forces to exist as a genetic capability. I won't try to cover the rational or evidence that Pinker uses to argue his hypothesis, but his arguments are extensive, logical, written in an interesting fashion, and occasionally complicated enough for me to give up on trying to follow for the sake of assuming they're probably right.

It's a combination of the last two factors which were the key for me to proceed to the end of the book and emerge from it with a sense of satisfaction. Pinker's writing is generally very personable, sometimes funny, and clear without being condescending. He's like Dawkins in that respect. I can't say I massively enjoyed this book though, partially because Pinker sometimes does delve into the deep end of linguistics and semiotics, analyzing aspects of language in a very practical manner that cannot help but seem a little confusing and dull for anyone without a natural inclination towards such things. Despite my love of literature and wordplay that category includes me I'm afraid. While Pinker tries to include some amusing anecdotes, it seems that the well for such things is  a little shallow.

On the other hand, it seems churlish of me to criticism this book for not being entertaining enough, because that's not really the point; Stephen Pinker's task is to discuss some complicated science (of which he is clearly an expert) in a tone appealing enough for the layman to embrace without sacrificing the integrity of the subject. With that in mind I think he succeeded in creating a though-provoking and well-balanced book that isn't always as quite amusing as the reader might like but is certainly one that he or she can take a lot out of; including telling all of their friends that they've read it in order to sound clever at parties.