dmsteyn reviewed this|almost 2 years ago
A highly readable account on how language is an inherent characteristic of the human species, which I found a bit unpleasant to read at times. Pinker is such a good writer that I feel a little inadequate in responding to his book, but that aside, I thought it was an erudite book on a complex topic, like all Pinker’s books. It is also a bit controversial, as Pinker skewers many a layman’s misguided ideas about language, its origins, and its uniqueness to humanity. And not only a layman’s ideas; Pinker takes everyone from the social scientists to what he calls the ‘language mavens’ (editors and other arbiters of prescriptive grammar) to task for promulgating false ideas about language. I found Pinker’s more polemical chapters a bit uncongenial, mostly because they attack some of my own subconscious ideas about language. I didn’t realise that I felt as strongly about prescriptive grammar until Pinker attacked it and its proponents. I don’t mind Pinker’s attacks on some of the more archaic rules of grammar (such as split infinitives and ending sentences on prepositions, and so forth) but I did find his fulminating a bit tiresome at times, especially when he sets up some straw men that he can easily knockdown. A quibble, really, but still.Pinker is on much firmer, and to me more interesting, ground when he explains the psychological and evolutionary origins of language. This is simply brilliant and lucid exposition, and I enjoyed it immeasurably. Pinker’s explanation of how language evolves in children, and how this seems to argue for a ‘language instinct’ in humans (Chomsky’s Universal Grammar) is masterful. I also enjoyed his withering refutations of the assertions of those primatologists who claim to have taught chimpanzees sign language, and the more absurd claims of some anthropologists (such as the infamous ‘100 different words for snow’ claimed for the Eskimos).My one problem with the book is that it came out in 1994, so how up to date it is, in an ever-changing field, is problematic. I wish Pinker would update the book, but maybe he’s too busy writing books about the decline in violence (The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I intend to read next year), and whatnot.Highly recommended, but not one to swallow hook, line, and sinker.