The Language Instinct received the William James Book Prize from the American Psychological Association and the Public Interest Award from the Linguistics Society of America. http://www.apadivisions.org/division-1/awards/james.aspx
The William James Award is intended to honor and publicize a recent book that best serves to further the goals of the Society by providing an outstanding example of an effort to bring together diverse subfields of psychology and related disciplines. This work must provide a coherent framework that stands as a creative synthesis of theory and fact from disparate areas and demonstrates an essential underlying set of themes that serve to unify or integrate the field. https://www.douban.com/doulist/1125423/
The Language Instinct has definitely made it to the top three list of my all time favorite books. Written in an informative yet accessible way, every chapter both a new discovery, a challenge and a new adventure, The Language Instinct is the equivalent of an erudite yet enjoyable travel companion who entertains rather than lectures the reader with its knowledge.
Language is probably the hallmark of human race. We boast our ability to communicate in words, a feature of our culture that no other living forms have. But Pinker shows us that far from being a cultural invention, language is actually an instinct. And because it is, then despite the doubts of the likes of Chomsky, it must be built gradually in the lineages one of which led to us thanks to natural selection. Aiming towards the goal of convincing us about that main point of language being an instinct, Pinker wove an abundance of evidence into this clear, mostly easy-to-swallow book. I said most, because to be frank at times I was lost among a wealth of linguistic terms that I had to crawl through, trying to just grab the general point of some parts.There is so much information packed into The Language Instinct, and that is the reason why my mind was being blown after every chapter.
语言其实比我们想象的复杂 Language is something most of us take for granted and is much more complex than we realize.
If you take a step back and picture two humans standing next to each other, hardly moving, yet through speaking and listening able to transfer what is in one mind to the other and to affect each others’ thoughts, via only language, it is quite remarkable. Here is the sequence of events: Person A thinks of something they want to communicate, chooses the vocabulary and syntax of their shared language that they want to use, and then uses the air and cavities of his throat, tongue, oral cavity, nasal cavity, teeth and lips (each of which have other primary functions) to make certain sounds in a specific sequence (a digital to analog conversion).Person B hears this sequence with her ears, and decodes the noises into words (an analog to digital conversion), analyzes the grammar, and extracts the meaning. This process is so robust that they may be doing this apparently effortlessly, while constantly interrupting each other, and often finalizing their thoughts only when they are in the midst of uttering their sentences–all while communicating very effectively. The process is so flexible with respect to content that two people sharing a language could be talking about what it’s like to grow up with an emotionally unavailable parent, justification for their cheese and wine pairing preferences, or mathematical equations describing the few initial seconds after the Big Bang. This showcases the dazzling capabilities of human language.
“Ordinary speech, like color vision or walking, is a paradigm of engineering excellence—a technology that works so well that the user takes its outcome for granted, unaware of the complicated machinery hidden behind the panels.(Pinker, 1994, p.15)
One of the important features of language is a flexible combinatorial grammar. To illustrate this, let’s take as an example this fairly straightforward sentence in English: “The man with the monstrously ugly umbrella left the house“.
Below is how it would be diagrammed by most linguists to analyze the sentence (note that this is not necessarily the same as the diagramming trees that English teachers use to teach ‘proper’ grammar):
The labels here are:
S = sentence, NP = noun phrase, VP = verb phrase, PP = prepositional phrase, D = determiner, etc.
When the sentence is shown in this way, we see the complexity of the structure required to both construct and decode this sentence—yet it is this structure that allows us to easily modify it in an unlimited number of ways.
Also, in other languages besides English there are many common aspects of how their grammars work, such as the concept of modifiers, embedded phrases, etc., and there are theories of so-called “Universal Grammar” that apply to all (or nearly all) known human languages. (word-chain model / disgramming tree / X-bar theory)
语言可以用有限的中介，去做无限的应用（make infinite use of finite media）
He makes many good points, and I learned a lot from reading this book, but something underlying the text was somewhat disturbing to me (and it's not just the way he seems to revere Noam Chomsky as a god, quoting him earnestly and often, and almost overemphasizing the one point where he disagrees with Chomsky as if to say, "Look, all you people who think I'm just digesting Chomsky for the masses - I DO have my own thoughts! So there!"). It's that Pinker is 100% an objectivist, believing that our language and culture don't really affect the underlying processes in our minds and that human beings are ultimately the same, whereas I can't see the world without some degree of relativity slipping in, thinking that we are all very very similar and are justified in acting as if we are all the same, but that there are subtle differences that we may not entirely be able to overcome. I think language, at least to a small degree, does affect the way we think and process the world, even if the differences are mostly ones we can see past or work around when talking with others from a different language background.(Jessica,2014)
语言是一种本能 We acquire language effortlessly and may even have a specific instinct for it.
“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 bake, brew, or write.” The experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker, took this quote as the inspiration for his book on – what he considers – the idea that there exists an innate language instinct to be found across all cultures. Elaborating on the canonical linguistic ideas of Noam Chomsky, particularly in regard to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, Pinker presents the lay reader with numerous examples of how language acquisition, grammatical comprehension, and the tendency to speak, are all aspects of an innate linguistic tendency that human beings share, regardless of cultural background or specific language.
Pinker makes the case that humans have a specific ‘instinct’ for acquiring and using language, and supports it with three areas of evidence.
First is the poverty of the input argument which states that children do not experience sufficient input from their environment to develop the complex rules and structures of language—they are exposed to various words and sentences, but then must generalize to the complex rules of grammar, and they generate new creative sentences that generally follow these rules, well before they go to school and learn to diagram sentences.
The second area of evidence is creolization, which is what happens when a pidgin language (a rough, simple patchwork of communicative phrases used by different linguistic peoples who are thrown together by some historical circumstance) is learned by children—they are turned into a full-blown language with complex rule-based grammars, and the pidgin develops into a creole. This shows evidence of anative linguistic capability, and as Pinker puts it:
complex language is universal because children actually reinvent it, generation after generation—not because they are taught, not because they are generally smart, not because it is useful to them, but because they just can’t help it. (Pinker, 1994, p.20).
The third area of evidence for the language instinct are language impairments that are due to injury (aphasia) or developmental disabilities (specific learning impairments) where individuals may be unable to use or comprehend certain types of grammar, but seem otherwise to have normal intelligence.
儿童如何学习语言 Language Acquisition
Kids use language rules and generalizations from the moment they begin to speak.They are hard-wired with universal grammar,by creating original sentences.
A friend, a diplomat’s daughter, when asked how she had managed to master Dutch when she went to a school in Suriname, shrugged.“I don’t know. I remember being so confused during the first day, not understanding a single word. But not so long after that, I was able to speak in Dutch. I just spoke, I don’t know how.”
That had happened years ago, when she was still very young. We have always wondered how come children are able to learn language easily, while many, if not most adults, find the task of learning a new language bewildering, bordering with the impossible. Plus, children are not just great imitators. If they were, we would only be repeating things our parents had told us when we were small. But we don’t. We don’t just mimic our parents’ words. Something in our neural circuitry does more than just copying; it analyses grammar, it finds for pattern, it composes new combination of words... frighteningly complex processes that, so far, cannot even be matched by the most advanced of AI.
语言不能决定思维 Language is not the same as thought and we are not completely [confined] by our native language.
Aiming towards the goal of convincing us about that main point of language being an instinct, Pinker wove an abundance of evidence into this clear, mostly easy-to-swallow book. (Tyas,2009)
The structure of a language affects its speakers' world vew or cognition.
—— The Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis
The mind is a general-purpose cognitive device shaped almost entirely by culture.
—— Social Standard Science Model
In Chapter one, entitled “An Instinct to Acquire an Art”, Pinker covers the two opposing linguistic schools, and talks about Chomsky and his research on Universal grammar. Pinker begins his polemic on Whorfian claims about language coloring in human perspective by discussing Chomsky’s skepticism, concerning not merely the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, but the “Standard Social Science Model” (SSSM) in general. Pinker, siding with Chomsky, feels that, not only is the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis wrong, but the basic intellectual stance that “the human psyche is molded by the surrounding culture”, is a dramatic misconception inspired by the SSSM.
The last language-centric book I read argued in favor of a point that had been laughed into noncredibility for years thanks to the implied racism it still carried from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis days, which is that the world actually looks different based on one's view of the world based on his or her culture and language (Through the Language Glass, written by Guy Deutscher and published in 2010 -- and which I must admit to having read long enough ago that I have shamefully forgotten many of its finer details but do recall as having made a rather convincing argument, as it delved into stuff such as how a language can reflect a culture's attitude toward its women) -- an hypothesis that Pinker decried within the first 50 pages of this 1994 bestseller as "wrong, all wrong," as it is his view that "discussions that assume that language determines thought carry on only by a collective suspension of disbelief." (Madeleine,2012)
I remember in college learning about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that a people’s language drastically affects how they think, with the examples of the number of words Eskimos have for snow and the Hopi’s lack of words for time (both have been ‘debunked’ as fanciful exaggerations). The conclusion that language determines thought is quite congenial to the standard social science paradigm because in that case people are entirely the products of their culture, and culture can be criticized/reformed without laying the blame on individuals. But of course, hoping something is true does not make it so. Pinker marshals several strands of evidence that indicate that thought is not the same as language:
1 Infants who have not yet developed language skills have been shown, through experiments, to have thoughts regarding cause and effect, simple counting, and the conservation of matter (e.g. in pouring water from a tall to a wide glass)
Cheney & Sefarth research
2 Their research has proved monkeys are able to think.(Monkey A vs B = Monkey A's sis vs B's sis)
3 People also think in images, as when we compare the shapes of objects by mentally rotating them in our minds.
New words are created (neologisms), when existing words in a language aren’t up to the job.We are able to create high fidelity translations from one language to another (excepting poetry, or evocative prose, perhaps)We sometimes struggle to express our thoughts and to “find the right words” that match our thoughts.
When ‘euphemisms’ are pointed out to us, we are not such prisoners of the words that we don’t see through them (e.g. ‘headcount rationalization’, ‘revenue enhancements’, ‘opportunity for development’, ‘collateral damage’, ‘I like you as a friend’, etc.).
I think this is compelling evidence to show that thought is not confined by one’s language (though can of course be influenced by it), and I think there are two upsides to this:
First, it means that there may be some commonalities in the way we think as humans, which is an important area worth studying (Part 2 of this post will consider some findings from Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought)；
and second, we don’t have to view language as a prison that confines us, but can continually strive to find better ways to express our thoughts, which also usually sharpens our thinking on the topic.
What stands out in this wonderfully informative book is Pinker’s basic, non-threatening theoretical stance that language is part of an adaptive process in nature. There may be notable superficial distinctions across different languages, but the basic structure of language and its apparent design is something that is utilized across all cultures, regardless of location, history, or linguistic origin. For Pinker, culture is not to be devalued or overlooked, but when lost in the cacophonous babel of world languages he opines, “I imagine seeing through the rhythms to the structures underneath, and sense that we all have the same minds.”
"All behavior is an interaction between nature and nurture, whose contributions are as inseparable as the length and width of a rectangle in determining its area."
Mentalese: the hypothetical "language of thought, or representation of concepts and propositions in the brain in which ideas, including the meanings of words and sentences, are couched.
Nevertheless, I like Pinker’s book for dissecting language thoroughly. My favourite part is of course about the language mavens – people who think they have the task to safeguard the purity of language and grammar. Pinker showed us that many instances of ‘ungrammatical’ words or sentences according to those mavens, are actually grammatical according to how our brain works. (Tyas,2009)
Though Pinker generally agrees with Chomsky’s work on Universal Grammar, The Language Instinct focuses primarily on the idea that thoughts create language, a mental process that Pinker refers to as “mentalese”. This theoretical linguistic perspective is diametric to that of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, which suggests that language determines thought, and that the particular culture one belongs to is unique, in turn greatly affecting the way that a person communicates, utilizes language, and ultimately, perceives the world around them.(Jimmy,2008)
Well, when I talk with my sister and brother, or with my bestfriends, sometimes we use words and phrases only we understand. (I wager none of you know what an ‘exedol’ is.) Sometimes we don’t even have to finish our sentences. Our experience together has created specific words and phrases and shaped the language that we use when we communicate with each other. But, when I write something, keeping a general reader in mind, I must be careful to use words and phrases most, if not all, readers would understand, presenting my thought clearly, preventing misunderstanding or confusion (except if that is exactly my intention, but Joyce I am not). Hence my writing style – but trust me, in verbal communication, I might sound very, very different.(Tyas,2009)
Logic-heavy gems such as, “And if there can be two thoughts corresponding to one word, thoughts can’t be words”, are peppered throughout the book. When he talks about x-bar theory, he explains how, “A part of speech, then, is not a kind of meaning: it is a kind of token that obeys certain formal rules, like a chess piece or a poker chip.” Pinker’s strongest arguments for a Universal Grammar or a language of thought, primarily concern phrase structure within sentences.
Language is far more interesting than filling up blanks on a question sheet with the right form of verbs, and Steven Pinker has a way of revealing to us how amazing our language and our brain are.
以上内容节选自 https://tonoticeandtolearn.com/2013/05/11/steven-pinker-on-language-human-thought-part-1/ (Charlie Chung 2013)
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