Book Review: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

The following is a book review and the first post in a series. This post discusses Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. The second post discusses Geoffrey Sampson’s The Language Instinct Debate, which is a critique of Pinker’s book. The third post will discuss some of the critics and reviews of Sampson’s book.

In order to talk about Steven Pinker and linguistics, I first have to explain a bit about Noam Chomsky and linguistics. Chomsky started writing about linguistics in the 1950s and through sheer force became a major player in the field. This did not, however, mean that any of Chomsky’s theories carried weight. On the contrary, they were highly speculative and devoid of empirical evidence. Chomsky is the armchair linguist extraordinaire. The audacity of his theory, however, was that it proposed humans are born with something called Universal Grammar, an innate genetic trait that interprets the common underlying structure of all languages and allows us to effortlessly learn our first language. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but it’s been over 50 years and the evidence has never come. On top of that, the linguist John McWhorter (who partly inspired this series of posts) has said that “There is an extent to which any scientific movement is partly a religion and that is definitely true of the Chomskyans.” As we’ll see, the analogy runs much deeper than that.

What you need to know for this review is that Steven Pinker is a Chomskyan. Therefore, this post will discuss not only The Language Instinct, but also the general theories behind it, since Pinker’s book is at the forefront of carrying on the (misguided) notions of Chomskyan linguistics. It’s not going to be pretty, but trust me, I know what I’m doing. To make things a bit easier on us all, instead of referring to Chomsky and Pinker and their cult followers separately, I’m going to call them Chomskers. (LOLcat says “meow”?).

Steven Pinker has got a bridge to sell you

On page 18, Pinker contrasts an innate origin of language with a cultural origin to define what he means by a language “instinct”:

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 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.

It’s possible to deconstruct the incongruities of that passage, but that’s a job for another post (specifically, the one right after this, Sampson’s critique of Pinker). For now, just replace “language” in that passage with “making a sandwich” because to most linguists, the idea that our ability to make a sandwich is a “distinct piece of biological makeup of our brains” makes just as much sense as Pinker’s notion about language. So… Great argument, let’s eat!

Instead of focusing on the logical arguments that refute Pinker’s theory, what I want to discuss here is the frustration that comes from reading The Language Instinct and Chomskers literature when you know there are other more tenable theories out there.

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid

The first problem has to do with what I’ll call the Chomskers’ Leap of Faith. This involves the theory that there is an underlying structure common to all languages and that its form and reasoning is innate to the human brain. It is called Universal Grammar. In a sense, our brains give us a basic language structure that we can then extrapolate to our mother tongue, whatever that may be. To Chomskers, that is how people learn how to speak so quickly – they already have the fundamental tool, or language instinct, needed to develop language.

How did Chomskers arrive at such a theory, you ask? Simple, they made it up. Universal Grammar was conjured out of thin air (i.e. Chomsky’s mind) and after five decades there is still no solid evidence of its existence. This is the leap of faith I’m talking about. A good example of it comes from two bullet points on page 409:

  • Under the microscope, the babel of languages no longer appear to vary in arbitrary ways and without limit. One now sees a common design to the machinery underlying the world’s languages, a Universal Grammar.
  • Unless this basic design is built in to the mechanism that learns a particular grammar, learning would be impossible. There are many possible ways of generalizing from parents’ speech to the language as a whole, and children home in on the right ones, fast.

These ideas are completely speculative (also known as – “pure bullshit”), but they illustrate Pinker’s leap of faith and circular logic. He thinks that because kids speak, they must have Universal Grammar and because they have Universal Grammar, they must speak. Chomskers love circular logic. It’s what their temple is built on. Pinker’s The Language Instinct is 450 pages of that kind of reasoning. Nothing in the 400 pages leading up to those bullets requires a belief in Universal Grammar. It’s just cherry-picked, misleading, or outright refuted studies.

And the Lord said unto Chomskers…

Another infuriating aspect of reading Chomskers is the pretentiousness of their prose. One gets the feeling that they are reading the Word of God (Noam Chomsky, to the Chomskers) sent down from on high. Instead of taking other theories into account, or even trying to prove why other theories are wrong, they simply dismiss them presumptuously. And they lead unsuspecting readers to do the same. Take this quote from page 39:

First, let’s do away with the folklore that parents teach their children language. No one supposes that parents provide explicit grammar lessons, of course, but many parents (and some child psychologists who should know better) think that mothers provide children with implicit lessons […] called Motherese.

Calling “Motherese” – which is a seriously studied and empirically proven phenomenon – “folklore” doesn’t make it so. Why Pinker would do such a thing seems strange at first, but you have to realize that that’s what Chomskers do. That is how they deal with other solid linguistic studies that have the possibility of refuting their claims (which, remember, have no empirical evidence). The attitude of contempt didn’t work for Noam Chomsky and it’s not going to work for Steven Pinker.

So why does he do it? As the linguist Pieter A. Seuren wrote in Western Linguistics: An Historical Inroduction:

Frequently one finds [Chomsky] use the term ‘exotic’ when referring to proposals or theories that he wishes to reject, whereas anything proposed by himself or his followers is ‘natural’ or ‘standard’. […]
One further, particularly striking feature of the Chomsky school must be mentioned in this context, the curious habit of referring to and quoting only members of the same school, ignoring all other linguists except when they have been long dead. The fact that the Chomsky school forms a close and entirely inward looking citation community has made some authors compare it to a religious sect or, less damningly, a village parish. No doubt there is a point to this kind of comparison, but one should realize that political considerations probably play a larger part in Chomskyan linguistics than is customary in either sects or village parishes. (525)

The problem again lays in Chomskers’ impression that only their theory exists. The bored, novice, or uncritical reader – and, you know, anyone being tested on this book – is liable to take Pinker at face value. In Chapter 8, aptly titled “The Tower of Babel,” Pinker really lays on the God-given truth of Universal Grammar. He writes

What is most striking of all is that we can look at a randomly picked language and find things that can sensibly be called subjects, objects, and verbs to begin with. After all, if we were asked to look for the order of subject, object, and verb in musical notation, or in the computer programming language FORTRAN, or in Morse code, or in arithmetic, we would protest that the very idea is nonsensical. It would be like assembling a representative collection of the world’s cultures from the six continents and trying to survey the colors of their hockey team jerseys or the form of their harakiri rituals. We should be impressed, first and foremost, that research on universals of grammar is even possible!

Except we shouldn’t. Chomskers have been pulling their “theories” out of your collective asses for decades now. Why would anyone be impressed that “research” on something they made up is “possible?” Are you impressed with people in tin foil hats researching UFO landings? That’s not to mention the fact that we invented the concepts of “subject” and “verb” to apply to language, just like we invented “base 10” and “base 60” to apply to arithmetic. Looking for those in language would be nonsensical. But looking for something that could sensibly be called a base in any randomly picked counting system would be – shock! awe! – possible and completely unimpressive. Pinker does a disservice to the reader by equating the existence of something like nouns in all of the world’s languages to the “existence” of Universal Grammar. There is evidence for one, not the other. The Bible tells us that the world was created. That is a fact. The Bible also tells us that God created the world. That is a statement of belief.

In a footnote, Seuren quotes Pinker’s admiration for Chomsky and then says “It seems that Pinker forgot to take into account the possibility that there may also be valid professional reasons for uttering severe criticisms vis-à-vis Chomsky.” (526) In the same way that a Catholic priest is unlikely to quote from the Koran in his sermon, Chomskers will not address any other theories in their writing. That’s alright for a parish, it’s not alright for academia.

At this point you may be wondering how the Chomskers’ theories have survived for so long. It has to do with their outlandishness and their unwillingness to engage with critics. As Seuren notes, “And since no other school of linguistics would be prepared to venture into areas of theorizing so far removed from verifiable facts and possible falsification, the Chomskyan proposals could be made to appear unchallenged.” (284) By the time other linguists took note of what the Chomskers were up to, it was too late. They had already established their old boys club. What’s interesting is that linguists need not bother trying to tear down the Chomskers, since books like The Language Instinct demonstrate that the closer Chomskers try to bring their theory to verifiable facts, the more they falsify it. I don’t know if Pinker realized this, but writing about shit as if it were Shinola has never been a problem for Chomskers. In a subsection titled No arguments were produced, just rhetoric Seuren writes,

Despite twenty-odd years of disparagement from the side of Chomsky and his followers, one has to face the astonishing fact that not a single actual argument was produced during that period to support the attitude of dismissal and even contempt that one finds expressed, as a matter of routine, in the relevant Chomsky-inspired literature. Quasi-arguments, on the contrary, abounded. (514)

Linguistics does not work that way. Good night!

I told you the religion analogy was going to be more appropriate than it seemed at first. Belief in Universal Grammar is very much like belief in a god – you can’t see it, but it’s there. But that’s not science! To some people, the sunrise is proof that god exists. To astronomers, the sun does not actually “rise”. To Chomskers, speech is proof that Universal Gammar exists. To linguists, speech does not require such a leap of faith.

With his hawkish proclamations of the existence of Universal Grammar and his complete dismissal of any criticism, Noam Chomsky has done more harm than good to linguistics. Seuren says that “this behavior on Chomsky’s part has caused great harm to linguistics. Largely as a result of Chomsky’s actions, linguistics is now sociologically in a very unhealthy state. It has, moreover, lost most of the prestige and appeal it commanded forty years ago.” (526)

In an ironic turn of events considering his liberal political leanings, Chomsky and his ilk have become the Fox News of linguistics – they pull their theories out of thin air, shout them at the top of their lungs, and ridicule any who say otherwise. And just like the scare tactics of Fox News, the idea of a language instinct sells. McWhorter quite politely explains the Chomskers’ zealotry by saying “they want to find [a language instinct], they’re stimulated by this idea – as far as the counter evidence, most of them are too busy writing grants to pay much attention.” But that’s being too kind. If you ask me, bullshitting is their business… and business is good.

All this is unfortunate

To sum up, is there a language instinct? Maybe. Does Steven Pinker present a valid case for a language instinct? No.

To return to our religious analogy, you can believe in the Christian god, or in Buddha, or in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you can’t prove any of these gods exist (apologies to the Pastafarians, who have presented some very compelling evidence). Neither can Chomskers prove that a language instinct exists. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with believing it does, but you better have some facts to back up your theory if you want others to follow. Smoke and mirrors are interesting when used in magic shows, but infuriating when used in academic prose.

With a sly patronizing of those who cannot put up with Chomsky’s dense prose and a crafty acknowledgement of Chomsky’s intellectual superiority, Pinker writes

And who can blame the grammarphobe, when a typical passage from one of Chomsky’s technical works reads as follows? […quotes some mumbo jumbo from Chomksy…] All this is unfortunate […] Chomsky’s theory […] is a set of discoveries about the design of language that can be appreciated intuitively if one first understands the problems to which the theory provides solutions. (104)

Pinker complains about others who seem to have not read Chomsky, but I get the sense that Chomsky is the only linguist Pinker has ever read. Because either Pinker knows of other linguistic theories and he’s not telling (i.e., he’s being deceptive) or he doesn’t know of them at all (i.e., he’s hasn’t done his research). Either way, it’s poor scholarship. As we’ll see in the next post, Pinker knows of Sampson’s theory and he uses examples from Sampson’s book without acknowledgment. That’s also poor scholarship, but of the kind that is common to Chomskers.

References

McWhorter, John. 2004. “When Language Began”. The Story of Human Language. The Great Courses: The Teaching Company. Course No. 1600.

Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. Penguin Group: London.

Seuren, Pieter A. M. 2004 (1998). Western Linguistics: an Historical Introduction. Oxford; Malden (MA): Blackwell.

 

 

 

Up next: A review of The Language Instinct Debate by Geoffrey Sampson.

 
[Update – This post originally had Noam Chomsky’s name written as “Chompsky”. Oops. Hehe. A word to the wise: Before adding words to your word processor’s dictionary, make sure they’re spelled correctly. Hat tip to Angela for pointing out the mistake.]

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker”

  1. I largely agree with you, I’m no Chomskyian, but I think you left a couple of key points.

    One, you never mentioned poverty of the stimulus and that’s a HUGE component of generative grammar. You can’t talk about Chomsky without mentioned POS and I’m sure it’s in Pinker’s book somewhere. It’s part of the standard argument in favour of UG: the learning data isn’t sufficient to learn the language, but children learn it anyway, therefore there must be something built-in.That conclusion is poppycock of course, but I think it’s extremely unfair of you not to mention that poppycock.

    Two, there *is* a biological component to language. It’s absurd to claim otherwise. And it’s obviously specialized to humans. Raise a kitten and a human infant in the same linguistic environment, and only one of them will learn to talk. I get the feeling you are trying to criticize this point and I don’t understand why, since these are clear and indisputable facts. But again, they aren’t sufficient to convince me that UG is actually a thing.

    1. Hi linguischtick,

      You’re right, I deliberately left out the POS argument. It is in Pinker’s book and his argument that Motherese is “folklore” is part of it. And you’re right, it is poppycock. But I left it out because I was planning on putting it in the next article since Sampson breaks it down much better than I could. I also didn’t want this post to turn into a step-by-step tear down of Pinker’s book since that’s what Sampson’s book is (and since I was trying to keep this post relatively short). It’ll probably be a good idea to sum up Sampson’s arguments against the language instinct idea, if only for readers who aren’t steeped in linguistic theory (and who, coincidentally, are the people Pinker’s book is aimed at). So thanks for bringing it up. If I can do it succinctly, I’ll include it in the Sampson post. If not, I’ll have to turn the Sampson post into a two-parter. Stay tuned!

      As to your second point, I should have been more clear on that. Of course there is some biological component to language. I hope I didn’t sound like I was claiming otherwise by leaving that out. I wasn’t trying to criticize that point since I agree that language is part of human biology, but I was trying to criticize the idea that saying there is a biological component to language does not mean we need to make a leap of faith into believing in UG. That is what the Chomskyians want us to do even though it is completely irrational since there is no hard evidence. As you say, the evidence isn’t “sufficient to convince me that UG is actually a thing.” How very logical of you.

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