Five months after I didn’t get to see Steven Pinker because of severe weather and a huge crowd, I have finally finished his book The Language Instinct. I’m somewhat at a loss as to what to say about the book. Overall I enjoyed it and found it a worthwhile read. Some parts felt like a bit of a slog but I think the slog was not due to Pinker necessarily but to me just not having an interest in how verb phrases are constructed.
The premise and point of the book is to explain how the basis for language is a biological and evolutionary phenomena of human beings. Each chapter builds on the one that came before so that it seems like the really interesting and fun stuff comes at the end. This happened last year when I read Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos. This doesn’t mean nothing leading up to the final chapters is interesting, only that the bulk of the really fascinating things about language come at the end after Pinker has laid out all the evidence and we know where he is coming from when he talks about how language can indeed be a product of evolution.
One of my favorite chapters was one in which Pinker takes those he calls “language mavens” to task. The language mavens are the Richard Lederers and William Safires of the world who delight in making fun of people for speaking incorrectly and like to tell everyone how we should speak. As a cognitive scientist and a linguist, Pinker takes obvious delight in making fun of them. Because we all have a Universal Grammar in our brains we all have an innate knowledge of grammar. As we grow up and learn to speak English or French or Swahili, the Universal Grammar in our brains creates the processing wires for that particular language so that we know if we are learning English how to create noun phrases and verb phrases and how verbs are conjugated. No one ever has to teach us grammar, we already know it.
What the language mavens are doing, as well as those who are trying to “save” English, is approaching language from a prescriptive angle. There is a “standard” English and this is what is taught in schools. It’s the language of business and commerce and academics. And there is nothing wrong with it. What is wrong is for the language mavens to say that standard English is the only English. Standard English was created by writers and style editors and people like that, it is not organic. Quite a number of the grammar “rules” in standard English do not come from English grammar at all, but Latin grammar. For instance, the rule of never split an infinitive. The way Latin is constructed you can’t split an infinitive because oftentimes the infinitive is a single word like facere. While in English our infinitives are two words, to work and there is no reason why they can’t be split up by an adverb. Would you want the starship Enterprise “to go boldy” or “to boldly go?”
Few people actually speak standard English in their everyday lives, but yet, most everyone speaks grammatically mostof the time; we can’t help it. In Pinker’s opinion to make fun of people for not speaking standard English is just plain mean. Pinker actually takes examples from Safire’s and Lederer’s columns and explains how the things they get on their high horse about are actually perfectly grammatical. He also explains why language mavens are fighting a losing battle. Language changes over time to suit the needs of those who use it. If you read Shakespeare or Chaucer or Beowulf, even though they are all English, you may be hard pressed to understand it. But Pinker even admits that he has trouble sometimes and that it really bothers him when people use “disinterested” to mean “apathetic.” We all have our peeves as noted at Box of Books recently.
I by no means wish to start an argument over language or grammar or whether Pinker is right or wrong. I think what Pinker ultimately does in the end, regardless of whether you agree with him or not, is to remind us what a fascinating thing is language and the human mind, how much we have learned and how much we have left to learn about ourselves and the words we speak.