The Language Instinct

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language
The Language Instinct.jpg
Cover of the first edition
AuthorSteven Pinker
CountryUnited States
SubjectPsycholinguistics, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary psychology of language, linguistics
Published1994 (William Morrow and Company)
Media typePrint
Followed byHow the Mind Works 

The Language Instinct is a 1994 book by Steven Pinker, written for a general audience. Pinker argues that humans are born with an innate capacity for language. He deals sympathetically with Noam Chomsky's claim that all human language shows evidence of a universal grammar, but dissents from Chomsky's skepticism that evolutionary theory can explain the human language instinct.


Pinker criticizes a number of common ideas about language, for example that children must be taught to use it, that most people's grammar is poor, that the quality of language is steadily declining, that the kind of linguistic facilities that a language provides (for example, some languages have words to describe light and dark, but no words for colors) has a heavy influence on a person's possible range of thoughts (the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis), and that nonhuman animals have been taught language (see Great ape language). Pinker sees language as an ability unique to humans, produced by evolution to solve the specific problem of communication among social hunter-gatherers. He compares language to other species' specialized adaptations such as spiders' web-weaving or beavers' dam-building behavior, calling all three "instincts".

By calling language an instinct, Pinker means that it is not a human invention in the sense that metalworking and even writing are. While only some human cultures possess these technologies, all cultures possess language. As further evidence for the universality of language, Pinker—mainly relying on the work of Derek Bickerton—notes that children spontaneously invent a consistent grammatical speech (a creole) even if they grow up among a mixed-culture population speaking an informal trade pidgin with no consistent rules. Deaf babies "babble" with their hands as others normally do with voice, and spontaneously invent sign languages with true grammar rather than a crude "me Tarzan, you Jane" pointing system. Language (speech) also develops in the absence of formal instruction or active attempts by parents to correct children's grammar. These signs suggest that rather than being a human invention, language is an innate human ability. Pinker also distinguishes language from humans' general reasoning ability, emphasizing that it is not simply a mark of advanced intelligence but rather a specialized "mental module". He distinguishes the linguist's notion of grammar, such as the placement of adjectives, from formal rules such as those in the American English writing style guide. He argues that because rules like "a preposition is not a proper word to end a sentence with" must be explicitly taught, they are irrelevant to actual communication and should be ignored.

Pinker attempts to trace the outlines of the language instinct by citing his own studies of language acquisition in children, and the works of many other linguists and psychologists in multiple fields, as well as numerous examples from popular culture. He notes, for instance, that specific types of brain damage cause specific impairments of language such as Broca's aphasia or Wernicke's aphasia, that specific types of grammatical construction are especially hard to understand, and that there seems to be a critical period in childhood for language development just as there is a critical period for vision development in cats. Much of the book refers to Chomsky's concept of a universal grammar, a meta-grammar into which all human languages fit. Pinker explains that a universal grammar represents specific structures in the human brain that recognize the general rules of other humans' speech, such as whether the local language places adjectives before or after nouns, and begin a specialized and very rapid learning process not explainable as reasoning from first principles or pure logic. This learning machinery exists only during a specific critical period of childhood and is then disassembled for thrift, freeing resources in an energy-hungry brain.


Pinker's assumptions about the innateness of language have been challenged; English linguist Geoffrey Sampson argues that there is no such thing as a language instinct.[1][2] As of 2015, the nativist views of Pinker and Chomsky were on the decline in mainstream applied linguistics on the grounds that they were inconsistent with the evidence and had faulty argumentation.[3]

Richard Webster, writes in Why Freud Was Wrong (1995), and concludes that Pinker argues cogently that the human capacity for language is part of the genetic endowment associated with the evolution through natural selection of specialised neural networks within the brain, and that its attack on the 'standard social science model' of human nature is effective. Webster accepts Pinker's argument that, for ideological motives, twentieth-century social scientists have minimized the extent to which human nature is influenced by genetics. However, Webster finds Pinker's speculation about other specialized neural networks that may have evolved within the human brain—such as "intuitive mechanics" and "intuitive biology"—to be questionable, and believes that there is a danger that they will be treated by others as science. Webster believes that such speculations strengthen supporters of extreme genetic determinism.[4]


  1. ^ Geoffrey Sampson: The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate.
  2. ^ Sampson, Geoffrey (2007). "There is no language instinct" (PDF). Ilha do Desterro (52): 35–63. doi:10.5007/%25x. Retrieved 2020-12-22.
  3. ^
    • Fernald, Anne; Marchman, Virginia A. (2006). "27: Language learning in infancy". In Traxler and Gernsbacher (ed.). Handbook of Psycholinguistics. Academic Press. pp. 1027–1071. ISBN 9780080466415., quote p. 1030: "Some critiques directly challenge the logic of arguments made by Chomsky, Pinker, and like-minded theorists, questioning such core assumptions as the universality of generative grammar, the autonomy of syntax in language processing, and the fundamental unlearnability of language (e.g., Bates & Goodman, 1999; Braine, 1994; Pullum & Scholz, 2002; Tomasello, 1995). Other critiques focus on empirical evidence inconsistent with particular nativist assertions. For example, the claim that negative evidence is not available when children make grammatical errors, an assumption central to the “poverty of the stimulus” argument at the heart of Chomsky’s theory, is not supported by a recent analysis of parents’ reformulations in speech to children (Chouinard & Clark, 2003). These diverse challenges, both philosophical and data-driven, have fueled debate over four decades about the explanatory adequacy of nativist theories of language learning."
    • de Bot, Kees (2015). A History of Applied Linguistics: From 1980 to the Present. Routledge. ISBN 9781138820654., quote pp. 58–60: "GG is generally seen as a declining paradigm and its proponents now tend to stay away from conferences like AAAL (the American Association of Applied Linguistics) and University of Boston Child Language Development conferences, as a cursory count of papers on the basis of abstracts shows [...] In the psycholinguistic community, the idea of innateness and a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) were seen as problematic [...] Now that generation of GG linguists is retiring and there is a tendency in many universities not to replace them with younger scholars of that school, but rather appoint UB oriented linguists. There is almost a euphoria that the grip of the nativists on what constitutes linguistics is gone and that other approaches and more social orientations are seen as meaningful alternatives. Others try to explain the reasons for the decline of GG [...] Some informants are quite outspoken about the role of GG in AL. William Grabe states: “Fundamentally Chomsky is wrong and we wasted a lot of time. In 1964 Chomsky’s Aspects was published. Now, in 2014, we are 50 years later. What impact has all of that had in real world language use? This is an overstated theoretical direction.” Jan Hulstijn summarizes: “Generative linguistics has had no noticeable (or durable) impact.”"
  4. ^ Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. pp. 609–610. ISBN 0-9515922-5-4.

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