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6 June 2009 / April

Considering language

I think I enjoy reading books about language because it’s like a fish reading about water.  Language is everywhere, it’s essential, we use it constantly and consider it rarely.  And when we do consider it, we realize it’s really flipping weird.

Considering language makes us repeat the words “golf” or “tear” until they’re no longer words, or ponder adjectives like “well-read” (as in “The old book was well-read” or “She was intelligent and well-read”) and “breathable” (as in “The air here is so clean and breathable” or “These bright yellow sneakers are so breathable”) far more than should be natural, or debate the possibilities of patting versus padding a cat.

Considering language makes Steven Pinker write books.

When I picked up The Language Instinct, I somehow assumed it would be like The Stuff of Thought but more boring.  Perhaps because it was old and drab and in a used bookstore, instead of shiny and new and in Borders, or because the cover was kind of dull and didn’t feature bright rainbow-colored iconographs cascading across it (seriously, I love the cover of Stuff of Thought).  Or maybe because its subtitle, “How the Mind Creates Language,” does not thrill the soul and excite the intellect as does “Language as a Window into Human Nature.”

This was a foolish assumption, I soon learned.

There’s some overlap between these two linguistic books, but there is a clear difference in focus.  Language Instinct gets its hands dirty in all the gritty inner workings of language that Stuff of Thought gracefully avoids– how kids learn language, how natural selection developed it, how people parse it and pronounce it…

Oh man, the chapter on phonetics is a must-read for all my crazy friends who have made feeble attempts to phoneticize English or who went to that NACLO practice session last year and heard about computer-simulated voices.  The chapter on phonetics actually makes it physically impossible not to sit by yourself mouthing “Cape Cod” and “prize/price” and “NPR,” and possibly observing the positions of the three parts of your tongue as you do so.  Did you know your tongue, that floppy slab of meat, has three distinct parts?  I sure as hell didn’t, but now I find myself worrying about the locations of my tongue’s tip, body, and root when I should be worrying about other things instead.

I also love reading Pinker because he has this no-nonsense way of calling other people idiots that is a joy and delight to peruse.  Here he is addressing the infamous nature versus nurture debate:

Yes, there are important roles for both heredity and environment.  A child brought up in Japan ends up speaking Japanese; the same child, if brought up in the United States, would end up speaking English.  So we know that the environment plays a role.  If a child is inseparable from a pet hamster when growing up, the child ends up speaking a language, but the hamster, exposed to the same environment, does not.  So we know that heredity plays a role.

Of course he goes on to address some more controversial claims, but honestly, he renders some seemingly serious arguments rather silly.  Obviously children must learn language from their parents, which is why, say, a first-generation American with Chinese parents (hello!) can speak English fluently but knows approximately three words of Chinese.

But also obviously (perhaps slightly less so, though if you read this book it will be obvious), there must be some Universal Grammar, some language instinct, hard-coded into the human brain, or else the vast number of languages in the world would not share so many uncanny similarities– and I could be discussing linguistics with my dog instead of you folks via the internet.

Another group of people whom Pinker goes after are those who deplore the corruption of The Holy English Language or who constantly hound their fellows over notorious errors like misusing “hopefully” or using double negatives or, yes, even “Me and Amy are leaving Gimme! Coffee right now.”

I know a bunch of these people too.  I am related to one of them.  You should all make a beeline to the nearest book-distributing facility to procure this book and read the chapter entitled “The Language Mavens.”  It probably won’t persuade you of anything because you’re all too hardcore, but it will be persuasive enough to make you upset, and a little anger is good for you once in a while.

Pinker argues in defense of so-called “bad grammar” by noting that the errors people make most often are ones that obey the subtle linguistic logic that is hard-wired in the form of Universal Grammar.  In fact, many errors make more sense than the arbitrary rules concocted in the 19th century to help sell grammar books and followed blindly thereafter.

The language instinct has its own rules, finely tuned by eons of evolution, that are effortless to obey when using language or understanding it.  A rule that needs to be drilled into schoolchildren at great length is not a necessary rule.  (I can assure you that no one misinterprets “Hopefully it will rain tomorrow” as “It will rain in a manner full of hope tomorrow.”)

Also noteworthy is the fact that those prescriptive grammatical rules were intended to make English more similar to Latin, viewed at the time as a sort of archetype of the perfect language.  Now, I actually love studying the Latin language.  But Latin is fundamentally different from English, for a large number of grammatical reasons but also because it is DEAD.  And it is DEAD FOR A REASON.  Any rule that seeks to make English similar to Latin should be shunned and broken with gusto.

Anyway, there’s a whole lot here for those interested in language or eager to alienate themselves from their grammar-obsessed acquaintances.  So it is with no reservations that I recommend to you Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct.  Let the consideration of language begin.



Leave a Comment
  1. Kati / Jun 6 2009 4:07 pm

    I now know what I’ll be reading between now and the start of footloose rehearsals. Are they available at TCPL?

    • April / Jun 6 2009 4:20 pm

      Yeah, you were definitely one of the people I had in mind. They’re probably at the library.

  2. Rafael Lizarralde / Jun 6 2009 4:36 pm

    Technically you shouldn’t have your tongue in a different place for “prize” as opposed to “price”, the difference is whether or not you voice it (z’s and soft c’s are voiced and unvoiced alveolar fricatives [specifically, sibilants], respectively).

    • April / Jun 6 2009 5:53 pm

      As one who just finished a linguistics book with an entire chapter devoted to phonetics, I obviously needed you to tell me that. But yeah, the prize/price thing has to do with vowels before voiced vs. unvoiced consonants.

      • Rafael Lizarralde / Jun 6 2009 6:34 pm

        Oh. I’m so visual/kinesthetic, I completely screwed the auditory part.

  3. Rafael Lizarralde / Jun 6 2009 4:38 pm

    Oh, and there is no legitimate “nature vs. nurture debate”—people just make that up. Everyone who matters agrees that both play a role.

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