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[1998/7/10] Discussion about Geoffrey Sampson's Educating Eve in The LINGUIST List, February-June 1998.
My research includes both empirical studies of linguistic behavior and theoretical analyses of the nature of language and its relation to mind and brain.
On the empirical side, I study specific modules of grammar from a variety of disciplines, much as biologists direct focus on a few "model organisms." Currently, our group is studying inflectional morphology: the ability to derive walked from walk or mice from mouse. We are aiming for a unified theory and an extensive database of how the system works computationally, how it is learned, how it varies across languages, how it is used in language production and comprehension, and how it is represented in the brain. In our human information processing laboratory, we conduct reaction-time and rating studies of how people produce and perceive inflected forms. We also borrow from, and contribute to, generative linguistic theory, examining interactions between syntax, morphology, and the lexicon in English and other languages. We study people with neurological and genetic language and memory disorders (aphasia, Alzheimer's, specific language impairment), gathering evidence on how the different cognitive and linguistic modules underlying morphology might dissociate. We study the development of inflection in children's language, both by analyzing computer-based transcripts of spontaneous speech and by conducting experiments in child-care centers; these studies document children's memorization and rule-deployment abilities and how they change over time.
On the theoretical side, I have used linguistic and psycholinguistic data to develop a comprehensive model of the acquisition of grammar and lexicon, and to analyze issues such as the role of symbolic and connectionist computational architectures in language, the evolution of human language, and the nature of conceptual categories.
Many people have argued that the evolution of the human language faculty cannot be explained by Darwinian natural selection. Chomsky and Gould have suggested that language may have evolved as the by-product of selection for other abilities or as a consequence of as-yet unknown laws of growth and form. Others have argued that a biological specialization for grammar is incompatible with every tenet of Darwinian theory -- that it shows no genetic variation, could not exist in any intermediate forms, confers no selective advantage, and would require more evolutionary time and genomic space than is available. We examine these arguments and show that they depend on inaccurate assumptions about biology or language or both. Evolutionary theory offers clear criteria for when a trait should be attributed to natural selection: complex design for some function, and the absence of alternative processes capable of explaining such complexity. Human language meets this criterion: grammar is a complex mechanism tailored to the transmission of propositional structures through a serial interface. Autonomous and arbitrary grammatical phenomena have been offered as counterexamples to the position that language is an adaptation, but this reasoning is unsound: communication protocols depend on arbitrary conventions that are adaptive as long as they are shared. Consequently, language acquisition in the child should systematically differ from language evolution in the species and attempts to analogize them are misleading. Reviewing other arguments and data, we conclude that there is every reason to believe that a specialization for grammar evolved by a conventional neo-Darwinian process.
In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, well-known for his revolutionary theory of how children acquire language, 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, how it evolved. With wit, erudition, and deft use of everyday examples of humor and wordplay, Pinker weaves our vast knowledge of language into a compelling story: language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution like web spinning in spiders and sonar in bats.
NONFINAL VERSION: PLEASE DO NOTE QUOTE.
Does knowledge of language consist of mentally-represented rules? Rumelhart and McClelland have described a connectionist (parallel distributed processing) model of the acquisition of the past tense in English which successfully maps many stems onto their past tense forms, both regular (walk/walked) and irregular (go/went), and which mimics some of the errors and sequences of development of children. Yet the model contains no explicit rules, only a set of neuron-style units which stand for trigrams of phonetic features of the stem, a set of units which stand for trigrams of phonetic features of the past form, and an array of connections between the two sets of units whose strengths are modified during learning. Rumelhart and McClelland conclude that linguistic rules may be merely convenient approximate fictions and that the real causal processes in language use and acquisition must be characterized as the transfer of activation levels among units and the modification of the weights of their connections. We analyze both the linguistic and the developmental assumptions of the model in detail and discover that (1) it cannot represent certain words, (2) it cannot learn many rules, (3) it can learn rules found in no human language, (4) it cannot explain morphological and phonological regularities, (5) it cannot explain the differences between irregular and regular forms, (6) it fails at its assigned task of mastering the past tense of English, (7) it gives an incorrect explanation for two developmental phenomena: stages of overregularization of irregular forms such as bringed, and the appearance of doubly-marked forms such as ated, and (8) it gives accounts of two others (infrequent overregularization of verbs ending in t/d, and the order of acquisition of different irregular subclasses) that are indistinguishable from those of rule-based theories. In addition, we show how many failures of the model can be attributed to its connectionist architecture. We conclude that connectionists' claims about the dispensability of rules in explanations in the psychology of language must be rejected, and that, on the contrary, the linguistic and developmental facts provide good evidence for such rules.
In this influential study, Steven Pinker develops a new approach to the problem of language learning. Now reprinted with new commentary by the author, this classic work continues to be an indispensable resource in developmental psycholinguistics.
"This is the best book ever written on the human mind. Here Darwin meets Turing -- the theories of evolution and computation -- and Steven Pinker effects the introduction with penetrating clarity, superb writing, and delicious wit. The science is authoritative, the style accessible, and the range astonishing. Reading this book and learning about the mind of our species, I was proud to be an owner of both."
--Helena Cronin, Director, Center for the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, London School of Economics, and author of The Ant and the Peacock.
What are the differences, then, between the two books? Pinker's is almost twice as long, and includes fascinating excursions into somewhat more far-flung curiosities and controversies about language. I particularly recommend his witty--but not mean-spirited--debunking of the "language-mavens," those self-appointed authorities on the proprieties of language who have worked for centuries to get us all to give ourselves airs when we use words. Pulling the rug out from under these well-meaning scolds is not the independent digression into social criticism one might think; Pinker grounds his criticisms firmly in the undeniable facts about language as a biological phenomenon that have emerged in recent research. He introduces the topic with a deliciously apt comparison:Imagine that you are watching a nature documentary. The video shows the usual gorgeous footage of animals in their natural habitats. But the voiceover reports some troubling facts. Dolphins do not execute their swimming strokes properly. White-crowned sparrows carelessly debase their calls. . . . Who is this announcer, anyway? (p.370)Yes, a grammar is a normative system, which quite sharply distinguishes between proper and improper formulations, but it is also a natural phenomenon, designed over the eons by evolution. The comically shortsighted attempts by old-style grammarians to give Mother Nature a little assistance in the quality control department betray a fundamental misapprehension about language that Pinker seeks--successfully--to dispel.
The second leg of this suspicious four-way equation is the familiar and controversial one between "innate" and "universal". The third step involves the implicit identification of (a modularist) UG with universal properties of language, another issue which LINGUIST readers will recall from recent discussions. So:
instinctive = innate = universal = modular
Pinker presents this model as THE result from linguistics, and the only interpretation of the facts. This raises an issue worth exploring: In a trade book, the author should balance the need to be accessible to the public against the need to portray accurately the field and its issues. So is it acceptable to present a picture which in some way shows what we do, and why it is interesting, but which does not represent the theoretical and social diversity of the field? Does Pinker do a disservice to those whose ideas are ignored or dismissed in this work, or does his service to the field as a whole justify this one-sidedness? How would this work be evaluated if P's assumptions reflected a non-dominant paradigm?
1. Brugman suggests that I equate "innate" and "universal," but I took pains to distinguish them, as in the following passages: ...
2. I also would not concede that "the issue of how language expresses the infinity of human experiences is addressed by appeal to recursive function theory, leaving imagination and cognition ... unmentioned." ...
3. I did not describe Turing machines as "the 'scientifically respectable' model of mental representation (pp. 73 ff)." ...
Naturally, I disagree with other points in the review, but they are all fair-minded criticisms that are best left to discussion by more distinterested parties.
Of course, I don't agree with everything in the book. I find there is too much faith in application of logical principles to language. For example he argues that singular THEY is permitted on the basis of the nonreferentiality of the pronoun. I think the choice of pronoun is meaningful and obeys pragmatic criteria. Further, his criticism of the language mavens, while mostly on target in the particulars, does not show an understanding of the nature of prescription. For example, the fact that prescription has existed since Panini shows that it has a functionality that goes beyond being a silly fashion that started in the 18th century as Pinker implies. However, these are relatively minor quibbles in a work that communicates the large and small notions of what linguistics is about so effectively. I should note also, I am a lot more sympathetic philosphically and theoretically than Claudia Brugman is in terms of acceptance of modularity and other theoretical issues. Finally, unlike Brugman, I don't see anything in the book that could remotely be considered linguist bashing.
I thoroughly enjoyed Claudia Brugman's review of Steven Pinker's book, and my mouth dropped open at Michael Newman's recent comment that he doesn't *see anything which could remotely be considered linguist bashing*! Consider the so-called Whorf chapter where Pinker takes on his (supposedly) greatest enemy, Benjamin Whorf. Of course since, as we shall see, since Pinker doesn't really consider Whorf a linguist, he might argue that this isn't linguist bashing at all.
A few remarks re Dan Alford's comments on Pinker on Whorf:
(1) Thre is a difference between linguist bashing and Whorf bashing. As I recall, Geoff Pullum pulled the same trick of describing Whorf as an insurance man, which of course is true but in context sounds dismissive, and said about the same about him as Pinker.
(2) Malotki's work on Hopi time, which seeks to contradict Whorf, is explicitly based on TODAY's usage, which is heavily influenced by English. ...
(3) I think it is, as Alford says, untrue to say that Sapir or Whorf came up with the Sapir-Worf hypothesis, but it IS true to say that the accepted it or something close to it. ...
My girlfriend forwarded the critique by Moonhawk of Pinker's critique of Whorf. I have only slight familiarity with either Pinker or Whorf, but I am a theoretical physicist and I was bothered by Moonhawk's use of references to quantum physics. ...
I think I like Whorf's ideas, insofar as I understand them. But in fairness to Pinker I submit some comments on some sentences from Moonhawk's posting. ...Actually, come to think of it, quantum physicists have been telling us about this for almost a century, that our particular cultural notion of time is a linguistic construct! Is Pinker taking on quantum physics now?
They haven't told me. ...
After all the discussion on LINGUIST about Pinker and the popularization of linguistics, I am surprised by two things, having read most of the book:
1)Why is it that no one has mentioned the fact that in addition to being insightful and well-written, Pinker's book is just plain funny?
2)Why is it that no one has had much to say about Ray Jackendoff's equally interesting and insightful book of similar type to Pinker's?
Q: If language is an instinct, why does it take most infants as long as three years to learn to talk?
A: Another way of putting the question is: Why isn't the baby born talking? There are probably two answers.
One is simply that the structures of the brain are not completely assembled and developed at birth. Another answer is that learning is an essential part of language, because by its very nature language has to be a shared code. If you spoke a language of one, you might as well not speak at all. The learning period synchronizes the language ability of each child to that of everyone else around him. In some wild animals, it's true, the communication system is completely hard-wired.
Some birds, for instance, are born with a song that is genetically determined and impervious to external influence. But our language is infinitely more complex. There's no way that you could encode 60,000 words - the vocabulary of an average high-school graduate - in a genome consisting of 50,000 to 100,000 genes. Vocabulary has to be learned.
Liz: ... Can thought occur without language, I asked Professor Pinker.
Steven: Thought certainly can occur without language. We know that babies think before they learn language. Clever experimental techniques have shown that babies keep track of what's happening around them, of the people and objects. We know that animals can think, sometimes using the very same techniques that were developed for babies precisely because they're experimental techniques that you use with creatures with no language. ...
"As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world." So begins Steven Pinker's book, The Language Instinct. If you thought the Web was cool because of the hardware and software, forget it. The Web is cool because of the wetware--your brain.
Here is my exchange of correspondence with Professor Pinker on the subject:... Imagine my surprise when I read one of the better on-line ezines, Word, the next day and found the article "The Eskimos' Hundred Words for Snow" by someone named Phil James. I attach the text of the article. What do you think about it? Is this just a continuation of the hoax?Professor Pinker replied:
... Thanks for sending the list -- it's hilarious....it is a work of a witty satirist. Indeed, it makes a serious point -- some of the entries on the serious lists of Eskimo snow words are as dubious as "wa-ter" meaning melted snow "tlan-na-na" for oldie snow on the radio. ...
As the title suggests, Pinker's The Language Instinct supports the theory that language is innate and that humans have a common "universal grammar". This is a major theme of his book. Another is the correction of common misconceptions about language and the refutation of popular "factoids" with no basis in reality. (A whole chapter is devoted to refuting the arguments of language "mavens", pedants who worry more about normative grammatical rules than clear writing or the realities of human language.) But The Language Instinct is actually a fairly comprehensive introduction to linguistics.
... Pinker provides much of the framework on which his theory is very attractive indeed, but does not always make the connections between disparate elements of his domains of research, sometimes apparently disregarding such conjunctions. Therefore, his theory and its proofs may not represent the final word on the controversy over the source of language and linguisitc behavior.
... Steven Pinker, a former student of Chomsky, has made several conclusions concerning language and its evolution which are pertinent to a hypothesis of the time period in which psychedelic influence might have played a role in human evolution.(12) On the strength of much recent research, Pinker concludes that the first anatomically modern humans already spoke the equivalent of modern human language. Since language is intrinsic to the brain structures which produce and interpret it, language must have co-evolved with those structures, and have been fully realized with the advent of the brain with which it co-evolved. ...
In The Literary Mind, Turner ranges from the tools of modern linguistics, to the recent work of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio and Gerald Edelman, to literary masterpieces by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Proust, as he explains how story and projection - and their powerful combination in parable - are fundamental to everyday thought. In simple and traditional English, he reveals how we use parable to understand space and time, to grasp what it means to be located in space and time, and to conceive of ourselves, other selves, other lives, and other viewpoints. He explains the role of parable in reasoning, in categorizing, and in solving problems. He develops a powerful model of conceptual construction and, in a far-reaching final chapter, extends it to a new conception of the origin of language that contradicts proposals by such thinkers as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. Turner argues that story, projection, and parable precede grammar, that language follows from these mental capacities as a consequence. Language, he concludes, is the child of the literary mind.
But seriously, I would encourage you to have a look at Steven Pinker's recent book, 'The Language Instinct', which is not only terrifically informative, but quite engagingly written. He does a *real* number on grammarians, as only a professional linguist could. It will make you think twice about criticising anyone for dangling a participle, something up with which you might not ordinarily put...
Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct is one of the most recent, comprehensive and ambitious attempts to account for the origin of language. It approaches the topic from within the Chomskyan framework (Chomskyan linguists have generally remained silent about language evolution). Language, he says, is not a cultural artifact but a distinct piece of the biological make up of the brain. We would all agree that a biological and essentially evolutionary approach is desirable, though 'language instinct' already begs many questions. Chomsky's concept of Universal Grammar is well known: the brain must contain a recipe or program that can build an unlimited number of sentences from a finite list of words; the program may be called a mental grammar; children - 'grammatical geniuses' - must innately be equipped with a plan common to the grammars of all languages that tells them how to extract the syntactic patterns from the speech of their parents. However Pinker does not share Chomsky's scepticism about whether Darwinian natural selection can explain the origins of the language organ. This paper seeks to identify where, at a number of important points, Pinker's account seems unsatisfactory, for example: the idea that language could have developed, like the eye, by minute steps, under the pressure of natural selection, the idea that eventually neuroscientists will be able to locate a 'language organ', or behavioural geneticists discover a grammar gene, the postulation of a uniform distinct language of thought, mentalese, to be translated into any particular spoken language, his discussion of the arbitrariness of the sign, his account of the acquisition of language by children.
And I acknowledge that linguists over time have discovered patterns of speech among blacks that they believe are unique to blacks.
The Oakland school board cites many such linguistic reference in its bibliography, and in his book, "The Language Instinct," which is not part of the Oakland school board's bibliography, Steven Pinker discusses what he calls Black English Vernacular.
All races and ethnic groups have linguistic peculiarities. But do we elevate these peculiarities to language status in order to help teach standard English? Of course not. So why single them out for blacks?
In the following passage, Steven Pinker addresses the allegation (somewhat naïve from the point of view of logical theory) that the English singular "their" construction is "illogical". (This is a page-and-a-half excerpt from a book which is over four hundred pages in length, and so will hopefully be considered "fair use" under copyright law.)
Brockman: How does one even begin to explain something as complicated as the human mind?
Pinker: I think the key to understanding the mind is to try to "reverse-engineer" it to figure out what natural selection designed it to accomplish in the environment in which we evolved. In my new book, How the Mind Works, I present the mind as a system of "organs of computation" that allowed our ancestors to understand and outsmart objects, animals, plants, and each other.
... As Pinker sums it up, "First, since mental life goes on independently of particular languages, concepts of freedom and equality will be thinkable even if they are nameless." The idea that language, in and of itself, creates and perpetuates idea of inequality is simply preposterous.
Pinker's book is extremely well written. It has been praised in strong terms by a wide range of distinguished commentators. However, the fact that a case is argued in a way that is fascinating and enjoyable to read doesn't make it true. The reasons for believing in a common-sense empiricist account of human language and cognition remain as undamaged by Pinker as they were by Chomsky.
Indeed Pinker and the other `new wave' linguistic nativists operate partly by taking Chomsky's arguments for granted. And this strategy is rhetorically quite effective. When Chomsky originally spelled out an argument, the reader would assess it and might detect its fallacies; but when 1990s writers refer to something as having been established back in the 1960s-70s, most readers are likely to take this on trust, for lack of time and energy to check the sources.
- National Review, April 18, 1994, "The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language," by John Simon, one of Pinker's "language mavens".