Saturday, February 16, 2013

6th Canadian Reading Challenge: The Language Instinct - Steven Pinker

I didn't realize when I started reading The Language Instinct that Pinker is Canadian-born.  I should have picked up on it right away because he is so smart and so funny in that way that keeps the reader breathless and in his thrall.

No wonder the Korean professor in the English department at my former university came back to Korea after his sabbatical year at MIT dreamily murmuring about "Steven" and "Noam".  Professor Dude, I take back my derisive snort.  I snorted it back into my body (ouch!), never to be heard again.  Let's organize a dreamy murmuring party.  You do Nooooammmmmmmm and I'l do Steeeeeeeeeven, then after a while, we can switch or argue about turn-taking or get all sweet and hazy about morphemes.

Back to the book:  I had a little trouble keeping up with Pinker, because my heart just won't follow along with his pages and pages of diagrammed sentences, but mostly, I had fun.  I enjoyed reading about the experiments with babies to see just how early their instinct for spoken language kicks in.  It made me want to borrow someone of the diapered persuasion so I could do experiments of my own while disguising my intentions under the cloak of wannabe-granny warmth.

More good times ensued watching Pinker take down the so-called "language mavens" who are always weeping and wailing about how English grammar is being despoiled. They are talking of course about prescriptive grammar, and they are too anal or narrow-minded to understand the beauty of discussions about descriptive grammar. Pinker put them in their place with a withering comment somewhere along the lines of their concern for maintaining a rigid linguistic status quo "...has about as much to do with human language as judging cats at a cat show has to do with mammalian biology."

There's so much more.  Dreamily murmuring and manic typing aren't going together very well in this review, I'm afraid.  I can't forget about the monkey Nim Chimpsky.  I was very LOL (notice my use of descriptive rather than prescriptive grammar here) at the sight of Rod Stewart and Fred Flintstone as neighbors on Pinker's "bushy" reworking of Darwin's chain of being that we all had to study in biology class.

What else?  I liked how computers could find ambiguities in phrases that humans would consider to be extremely straightforward.  For example:

Time flies like an arrow.
(Fruit flies like a banana.)
Mary had a little lamb.
(With mint sauce.  The doctors were VERY surprised.  That tramp!)

The thing that made me want to fly with Pinker forever was his inclusion of this "fiendish string", created by one of his students, that is actually a possible -- grammatical -- sentence.  As Pinker carefully explains, to make sense of it, one just needs to remember that there is a city in upstate New York called Buffalo, American bison are known as buffalo, and the verb form of the word means to intimidate someone.  Now, imagine that  groups of upstate New York bison like to get together and intimidate each other:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

I'm so glad I read this book, but I'm all dissatisfied because now I only want to come up with fiendish grammar strings of my own and lay them at Steven Pinker's feet.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Oh, Steven.


Eva said...

I didn't know Pinker was Canadian! I've had this book on my TBR list for ages. Have you read John McWhorter? I bet you'd really enjoy him: lots of emphasis on descriptive linguistics, not any sentence diagramming. :)

Bybee said...

No, I've never read McWhorter. Thanks for the heads-up!

Beth said...

My son got in trouble because of an excerpt from this book that he read in fifth grade. He was asked to write a sentence as part of an evaluation, and he produced: Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Which was marked ungrammatical.

Unknown said...

fantastic post guys i really like it keep the good work like this thanks

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