The Language Instinct

A review of The Language Instinct by Rob Mason

In this classic, the world's expert on language and mind lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about language: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, and how it evolved.

The opening paragraph: As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world.  For you and I belong to a species with remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other's brains with exquisite precision.  I am not referring to telepathy or mind control or the other obsessions of fringe science; even in the depiction of believers these are blunt instruments compared to an ability that is uncontroversially present in everyone of us. That ability is language.  Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each others minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is. So let me remind you with some simple demonstrations. Asking you only to surrender your imagination to my words for a few moments, I can cause you to think some very specific thoughts.    Steven Pinker: The language Instinct.

One point that the book makes is that humans are born with some knowledge of language (Linguistic nativism.) One acquires a language not entirely through learning.  Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker argues that language in humans is a biological adaptation-language hard-wired into our minds by evolution. This suggests that language ability occurs through development instead of feedback from the environment.

However if human language is innate, then why is there such a variety of languages? Geographical barriers have may have played some part in this. As long as people are regularly speaking with each other, there is an obvious tendency for them to speak the same language.  Language however, is a dynamic proces and is constantly changing.  Each change on its own does not disrupt comprehension but by accumulating many such changes languages evolve to be significantly different from each other.