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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

Pinker, Steven - Finished Jan 16, 2017

Run-on Sentence Summary

A fun, accessible, and thorough introduction to linguistics.

Impressions

Linguistics is of those fields that everyone is naturally curious about. Pinker takes that itch and thoroughly scratches it. He covers lots of ground, such as how languages evolve, how language acquisition happens, how language and thought relate, and the fundamental properties of all language.

He answers many questions I’ve wondered about forever. For example, do we think in language? No, of course not, otherwise how could languages evolve? Language is necessarily ambiguous for brevity and therefore can’t be used for common sense reasoning. For example, which would be the newspaper headline, “Man bites dog” or “Dog bites man”? By the way, this context-dependence is called “deixis” and is one of the main reasons natural language processing by computers is so difficult.

Does our mother tongue fundamentally shape the ways we can think? This is a common misconception, and there is no scientific evidence that it is true. You may have heard about how inuits have hundreds of words for snow, but it is a conventional absurdity.

My favorite fun fact was about William the Conqueror. When he invaded England in 1066, he brought with him the norman dialect of french to serve as the language of the ruling classes. Words naturally seeped into English, giving us many idiosyncratic grammar rules such as “electric” -> “electricity”.

The latinate segment of English, due to its long words and history of formality, is responsible for what we see as stuffy language. For example:

“The adolescents who had effectuated forcible entry into the domicile were apprehended,” instead of the anglo-saxon, “We caught the kids who broke into the house”

Final Thoughts

Pinker’s style is witty and polished, and he packs a ton of information into a concise and addicting book. This is one of my favorite pop science books ever. I can’t wait to move on to his style guide, “The Sense of Style.”

Favorite Quote

“The English language is a rich verbal tapestry woven together from the tongues of the Greeks, the Latins, the Angles, the Klaxtons, the Celtics, and many more other ancient peoples, all of whom had severe drinking problems.”