The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

BOOK: The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language
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Steven Pinker
The Language Instinct

How the Mind Creates Language


Harry and Roslyn Pinker
who gave me language


An Instinct to Acquire an Art






How Language Works


Words, Words, Words


The Sounds of Silence


Talking Heads


The Tower of Babel


Baby Born Talking—Describes Heaven


Language Organs and Grammar Genes


The Big Bang


The Language Mavens


Mind Design


I have never met a person who is not interested in language. I wrote this
book to try to satisfy that curiosity. Language is beginning to submit to that uniquely satisfying kind of understanding that we call science, but the news has been kept a secret.

For the language lover, I hope to show that there is a world of elegance and richness in quotidian speech that far outshines the local curiosities of etymologies, unusual words, and fine points of usage.

For the reader of popular science, I hope to explain what is behind the recent discoveries (or, in many cases, nondiscoveries) reported in the press: universal deep structures, brainy babies, grammar genes, artifically intelligent computers, neural networks, signing chimps, talking Neanderthals, idiot savants, feral children, paradoxical brain damage, identical twins separated at birth, color pictures of the thinking brain, and the search for the mother of all languages. I also hope to answer many natural questions about languages, like why there are so many of them, why they are so hard for adults to learn, and why no one seems to know the plural of

For students unaware of the science of language and mind, or worse, burdened with memorizing word frequency effects on lexical decision reaction time or the fine points of the Empty Category Principle, I hope to convey the grand intellectual excitement that launched the modern study of language several decades ago.

For my professional colleagues, scattered across so many disciplines and studying so many seemingly unrelated topics, I hope to offer a semblance of an integration of this vast territory. Although I am an opinionated, obsessional researcher who dislikes insipid compromises that fuzz up the issues, many academic controversies remind me of the blind men palpating the elephant. If my personal synthesis seems to embrace both sides of debates like “formalism versus functionalism” or “syntax versus semantics versus pragmatics,” perhaps it is because there was never an issue there to begin with.

For the general nonfiction reader, interested in language and human beings in the broadest sense, I hope to offer something different from the airy platitudes—Language Lite—that typify discussions of language (generally by people who have never studied it) in the humanities and sciences alike. For better or worse, I can write in only one way, with a passion for powerful, explanatory ideas, and a torrent of relevant detail. Given this last habit, I am lucky to be explaining a subject whose principles underlie wordplay, poetry, rhetoric, wit, and good writing. I have not hesitated to show off my favorite examples of language in action from pop culture, ordinary children and adults, the more flamboyant academic writers in my field, and some of the finest stylists in English.

This book, then, is intended for everyone who uses language, and that means everyone!

I owe thanks to many people. First, to Leda Cosmides, Nancy Etcoff, Michael Gazzaniga, Laura Ann Petitto, Harry Pinker, Robert Pinker, Roslyn Pinker, Susan Pinker, John Tooby, and especially Ilavenil Subbiah, for commenting on the manuscript and generously offering advice and encouragement.

My home institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a special environment for the study of language, and I am grateful to the colleagues, students, and former students who shared their expertise. Noam Chomsky made penetrating criticisms and helpful suggestions, and Ned Block, Paul Bloom, Susan Carey, Ted Gibson, Morris Halle, and Michael Jordan helped me think through the issues in several chapters. Thanks go also to Hilary Bromberg, Jacob Feldman, John Houde, Samuel Jay Keyser, John J. Kim, Gary Marcus, Neal Perlmutter, David Pesetsky, David Pöppel, Annie Senghas, Karin Stromswold, Michael Tarr, Marianne Teuber, Michael Ullman, Kenneth Wexler, and Karen Wynn for erudite answers to questions ranging from sign language to obscure ball players and guitarists. The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences’ librarian, Pat Claffey, and computer system manager, Stephen G. Wadlow, those most admirable prototypes of their professions, offered dedicated, expert help at many stages.

Several chapters benefited from the scrutiny of real mavens, and I am grateful for their technical and stylistic comments: Derek Bickerton, David Caplan, Richard Dawkins, Nina Dronkers, Jane Grimshaw, Misia Landau, Beth Levin, Alan Prince, and Sarah G. Thomason. I also thank my colleagues in cyberspace who indulged my impatience by replying, sometimes in minutes, to my electronic queries: Mark Aronoff, Kathleen Baynes, Ursula Bellugi, Dorothy Bishop, Helena Cronin, Lila Gleitman, Myrna Gopnik, Jacques Guy, Henry Ku
era, Sigrid Lipka, Jacques Mehler, Elissa Newport, Alex Rudnicky, Jenny Singleton, Virginia Valian, and Heather Van der Lely. A final thank you to Alta Levenson of Bialik High School for her help with the Latin.

I am happy to acknowledge the special care lavished by John Brockman, my agent, Ravi Mirchandani, my editor at Penguin Books, and Maria Guarnaschelli, my editor at William Morrow; Maria’s wise and detailed advice vastly improved the final manuscript. Katarina Rice copy-edited my first two books, and I am delighted that she agreed to my request to work with me on this one, especially considering some of the things I say in Chapter 12.

My own research on language has been supported by the National Institutes of Health (grant HD 18381) and the National Science Foundation (grant BNS 91-09766), and by the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

An Instinct to Acquire an Art

As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders
of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. I am not referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science; even in the depictions of believers these are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in every one of us. That ability is language. Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is. So let me remind you with some simple demonstrations. Asking you only to surrender your imagination to my words for a few moments, I can cause you to think some very specific thoughts:

When a male octopus spots a female, his normally grayish body suddenly becomes striped. He swims above the female and begins caressing her with seven of his arms. If she allows this, he will quickly reach toward her and slip his eighth arm into her breathing tube. A series of sperm packets moves slowly through a groove in his arm, finally to slip into the mantle cavity of the female.


Cherries jubilee on a white suit? Wine on an altar cloth? Apply club soda immediately. It works beautifully to remove the stains from fabrics.


When Dixie opens the door to Tad, she is stunned, because she thought he was dead. She slams it in his face and then tries to escape. However, when Tad says, “I love you,” she lets him in. Tad comforts her, and they become passionate. When Brian interrupts, Dixie tells a stunned Tad that she and Brian were married earlier that day. With much difficulty, Dixie informs Brian that things are nowhere near finished between her and Tad. Then she spills the news that Jamie is Tad’s son. “My what?” says a shocked Tad.


Think about what these words have done. I did not simply remind you of octopuses; in the unlikely event that you ever see one develop stripes, you now know what will happen next. Perhaps the next time you are in a supermarket you will look for club soda, one out of the tens of thousands of items available, and then not touch it until months later when a particular substance and a particular object accidentally come together. You now share with millions of other people the secrets of protagonists in a world that is the product of some stranger’s imagination, the daytime drama
All My Children
. True, my demonstrations depended on our ability to read and write, and this makes our communication even more impressive by bridging gaps of time, space, and acquaintanceship. But writing is clearly an optional accessory; the real engine of verbal communication is the spoken language we acquire as children.

In any natural history of the human species, language would stand out as the preeminent trait. To be sure, a solitary human is an impressive problem-solver and engineer. But a race of Robinson Crusoes would not give an extraterrestrial observer all that much to remark on. What is truly arresting about our kind is better captured in the story of the Tower of Babel, in which humanity, speaking a single language, came so close to reaching heaven that God himself felt threatened. A common language connects the members of a community into an information-sharing network with formidable collective powers. Anyone can benefit from the strokes of genius, lucky accidents, and trial-and-error wisdom accumulated by anyone else, present or past. And people can work in teams, their efforts coordinated by negotiated agreements. As a result,
Homo sapiens
is a species, like blue-green algae and earthworms, that has wrought far-reaching changes on the planet. Archeologists have discovered the bones of ten thousand wild horses at the bottom of a cliff in France, the remains of herds stampeded over the clifftop by groups of paleolithic hunters seventeen thousand years ago. These fossils of ancient cooperation and shared ingenuity may shed light on why saber-tooth tigers, mastodons, giant woolly rhinoceroses, and dozens of other large mammals went extinct around the time that modern humans arrived in their habitats. Our ancestors, apparently, killed them off.

Language is so tightly woven into human experience that it is scarcely possible to imagine life without it. Chances are that if you find two or more people together anywhere on earth, they will soon be exchanging words. When there is no one to talk with, people talk to themselves, to their dogs, even to their plants. In our social relations, the race is not to the swift but to the verbal—the spellbinding orator, the silver-tongued seducer, the persuasive child who wins the battle of wills against a brawnier parent. Aphasia, the loss of language following brain injury, is devastating, and in severe cases family members may feel that the whole person is lost forever.

This book is about human language. Unlike most books with “language” in the title, it will not chide you about proper usage, trace the origins of idioms and slang, or divert you with palindromes, anagrams, eponyms, or those precious names for groups of animals like “exaltation of larks.” For I will be writing not about the English language or any other language, but about something much more basic: the instinct to learn, speak, and understand language. For the first time in history, there is something to write about it. Some thirty-five years ago a new science was born. Now called “cognitive science,” it combines tools from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neurobiology to explain the workings of human intelligence. The science of language, in particular, has seen spectacular advances in the years since. There are many phenomena of language that we are coming to understand nearly as well as we understand how a camera works or what the spleen is for. I hope to communicate these exciting discoveries, some of them as elegant as anything in modern science, but I have another agenda as well.

The recent illumination of linguistic abilities has revolutionary implications for our understanding of language and its role in human affairs, and for our view of humanity itself. Most educated people already have opinions about language. They know that it is man’s most important cultural invention, the quintessential example of his capacity to use symbols, and a biologically unprecedented event irrevocably separating him from other animals. They know that language pervades thought, with different languages causing their speakers to construe reality in different ways. They know that children learn to talk from role models and caregivers. They know that grammatical sophistication used to be nurtured in the schools, but sagging educational standards and the debasements of popular culture have led to a frightening decline in the ability of the average person to construct a grammatical sentence. They also know that English is a zany, logic-defying tongue, in which one drives on a parkway and parks in a driveway, plays at a recital and recites at a play. They know that English spelling takes such wackiness to even greater heights—George Bernard Shaw complained that
could just as sensibly be spelled
as in
tough, o
as in
women, ti as in nation
)—and that only institutional inertia prevents the adoption of a more rational, spell-it-like-it-sounds system.

In the pages that follow, I will try to convince you that every one of these common opinions is wrong! And they are all wrong for a single reason. Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Instead, it is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. For these reasons some cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system, and a computational module. But I prefer the admittedly quaint term “instinct.” It conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs. Web-spinning was not invented by some unsung spider genius and does not depend on having had the right education or on having an aptitude for architecture or the construction trades. Rather, spiders spin spider webs because they have spider brains, which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed. Although there are differences between webs and words, I will encourage you to see language in this way, for it helps to make sense of the phenomena we will explore.

Thinking of language as an instinct inverts the popular wisdom, especially as it has been passed down in the canon of the humanities and social sciences. Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture. It is not a manifestation of a general capacity to use symbols: a three-year-old, we shall see, is a grammatical genius, but is quite incompetent at the visual arts, religious iconography, traffic signs, and the other staples of the semiotics curriculum. Though language is a magnificent ability unique to
Homo sapiens
among living species, it does not call for sequestering the study of humans from the domain of biology, for a magnificent ability unique to a particular living species is far from unique in the animal kingdom. Some kinds of bats home in on flying insects using Doppler sonar. Some kinds of migratory birds navigate thousands of miles by calibrating the positions of the constellations against the time of day and year. In nature’s talent show we are simply a species of primate with our own act, a knack for communicating information about who did what to whom by modulating the sounds we make when we exhale.

Once you begin to look at language not as the ineffable essence of human uniqueness but as a biological adaptation to communicate information, it is no longer as tempting to see language as an insidious shaper of thought, and, we shall see, it is not. Moreover, seeing language as one of nature’s engineering marvels—an organ with “that perfection of structure and co-adaptation which justly excites our admiration,” in Darwin’s words—gives us a new respect for your ordinary Joe and the much-maligned English language (or any language). The complexity of language, from the scientist’s point of view, is part of our biological birthright; it is not something that parents teach their children or something that must be elaborated in school—as Oscar Wilde said, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” A preschooler’s tacit knowledge of grammar is more sophisticated than the thickest style manual or the most state-of-the-art computer language system, and the same applies to all healthy human beings, even the notorious syntax-fracturing professional athlete and the, you know, like, inarticulate teenage skateboarder. Finally, since language is the product of a well-engineered biological instinct, we shall see that it is not the nutty barrel of monkeys that entertainer-columnists make it out to be. I will try to restore some dignity to the English vernacular, and will even have some nice things to say about its spelling system.

The conception of language as a kind of instinct was first articulated in 1871 by Darwin himself. In
The Descent of Man
he had to contend with language because its confinement to humans seemed to present a challenge to his theory. As in all matters, his observations are uncannily modern:

As…one of the founders of the noble science of philology observes, language is an art, like brewing or baking; but writing would have been a better simile. It certainly is not a true instinct, for every language has to be learned. It differs, however, widely from all ordinary arts, for man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children; while no child has an instinctive tendency to brew, bake, or write. Moreover, no philologist now supposes that any language has been deliberately invented; it has been slowly and unconsciously developed by many steps.


Darwin concluded that language ability is “an instinctive tendency to acquire an art,” a design that is not peculiar to humans but seen in other species such as song-learning birds.

A language instinct may seem jarring to those who think of language as the zenith of the human intellect and who think of instincts as brute impulses that compel furry or feathered zombies to build a dam or up and fly south. But one of Darwin’s followers, William James, noted that an instinct possessor need not act as a “fatal automaton.” He argued that we have all the instincts that animals do, and many more besides; our flexible intelligence comes from the interplay of many instincts competing. Indeed, the instinctive nature of human thought is just what makes it so hard for us to see that it is an instinct:

It takes…a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange, so far as to ask for the
of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, “
Of course
we smile,
of course
our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd,
of course
we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved!”

And so, probably, does each animal feel about the particular things it tends to do in presence of particular objects…. To the lion it is the lioness which is made to be loved; to the bear, the she-bear. To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her.

Thus we may be sure that, however mysterious some animals’ instincts may appear to us, our instincts will appear no less mysterious to them. And we may conclude that, to the animal which obeys it, every impulse and every step of every instinct shines with its own sufficient light, and seems at the moment the only eternally right and proper thing to do. What voluptuous thrill may not shake a fly, when she at last discovers the one particular leaf, or carrion, or bit of dung, that out of all the world can stimulate her ovipositor to its discharge? Does not the discharge then seem to her the only fitting thing? And need she care or know anything about the future maggot and its food?

BOOK: The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language
13.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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