‘The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language’, by Steven Pinker – review

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates LanguageThe Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People tend to judge who you are according to how you speak and write as an effortlessly conspicuous touchstone of your intelligence. The pesky lexical solecism in writing, funny way of talking with accents, and fumbling manner of delivering thoughts are the Three Capital Sins decreed by English Language Purists regarding English Undefiled. Since English is not my mother tongue, such derisive experience often forced me to conform to the notion that the language ability determines general cognitive ability, until I read Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct.

Pinker, who himself came from a French/English/Yiddish linguistic family background, asserts that the salient features of language should not be synonymous with the performer’s general reasoning ability. He expounds that the language is the instinct, a survival mechanism resulting from human evolution, universal in humankind, whether technologically primitive or advanced. It is a highly specialized mental module established through the passing of times by wonderfully flexible human faculty of learning by mutation, heritability, and isolation. The aptly fitting allusion to the biblical Tower of Babel illustrates the universality of language due to the innate universal human consciousness. Hence, different languages are the descendants of the proto-type language with its changeable nature according to the passing of times, calling for changes in social and cultural modes of life.

In this sense, idioms and other forms of English-based pidgins demonstrate divergent evolutionary traits of English, not the illiteracy of the speakers of such languages. Pinker remonstrates with famous critics, editors, and writers, who are bulwarks of the Pure English since language is the instinct, not the mind itself. Their judging people based on how they speak and write shows the ignorance of the truth, seeing what they want from their designated vantage point of arrogant grammarians. Come to think of it, didn’t William Shakespeare, a former maker of leather gloves with a limited education of grammar school, ruffle the feathers of his university-educated colleagues in his time? Leo Tolstoy, Emily Bronte, and Jane Austen were not perfect spellers, nor was Jack Kerouac, who often stumbled into existential lingual vertigo because English was not his mother tongue.

The book covers everything you want to know about language: how and when people started to speak the way they do now, where the origin of proto-type language took place, and why language is not a barometer of intelligence. There is no such thing as linguistic relativity, a principle claiming that how you speak affects how you think, which alternately means that you are not as intelligent as you like to believe because your English is imperfect. I could not believe why many people disagree with Pinker’s view of the language instinct. They pillory him for being something of a language eugenist when he is against those language mavens, one of whom publicly derided Pinker for defending his parents’ less than perfect English language ability. The depth and breadth of knowledge that Pinker shares with his reader become scintillating with his trenchant wit and feisty honesty, comparable to Samuel Johnson, author of A Dictionary of the English Language. This book addressed my soul-searching question of language and its relation to intelligence, and it prescribed to my wounded soul with a new perspective of language as the instinct. Whether or not you subscribe to Pinker’s theory of the language instinct is voluntary, but don’t forget that prejudice darkens the knowledge.

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Stephanie Suh

I write stuff of my interest that does not interest anyone in my blog. No grammarians, no copy editors, no marketers, no cynics are welcome.

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