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The Language Instinct : Popular Penguins : Popular Penguins - Steven Pinker

The Language Instinct : Popular Penguins

Popular Penguins

Paperback Published: 1st September 2008
ISBN: 9780141037653
Number Of Pages: 504

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Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct propelled him to worldwide fame in 1994. His groundbreaking book's premise - that language is instinctual rather than acquired - so shook the foundations of biological science that the reverberations are still being felt today.

About The Author

Steven Pinker is one of the world's leading authorities on language and the mind. His popular and highly praised books include Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct. The recipient of several major awards for his teaching and scientific research, Pinker is Peter de Florez professor of psychology in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


I have never met a person who is not interested in language.

I wrote this book to try to satisfy that curiosity. Language is beginning to submit to that uniquely satisfying kind of understanding that we call science, but the news has been kept a secret.

For the language lover, I hope to show that there is a world of elegance and richness in quotidian speech that far outshines the local curiosities of etymologies, unusual words, and fine points of usage.

For the reader of popular science, I hope to explain what is behind the recent discoveries (or, in many cases, non-discoveries) reported in the press: universal deep structures, brainy babies, grammar genes, artificially intelligent computers, neural networks, signing chimps, talking Neanderthals, idiot savants, feral children, paradoxical brain damage, identical twins separated at birth, color pictures of the think­ing brain, and the search for the mother of all languages. I also hope to answer many natural questions about languages, like why there are so many of them, why they are so hard for adults to learn, and why no one seems to know the plural of Walkman.

For students unaware of the science of language and mind, or worse, burdened with memorizing word frequency effects on lexical decision reaction time or the fine points of the Empty Category Principle, I hope to convey the grand intellectual excitement that launched the modern study of language several decades ago.

For my professional colleagues, scattered across so many disciplines and studying so many seemingly unrelated topics, I hope to offer a semblance of an integration of this vast territory. Although I am an opinionated, obsessional researcher who dislikes insipid compromises that fuzz up the issues, many academic controversies remind me of the blind men palpating the elephant. If my personal synthesis seems to embrace both sides of debates like 'formalism versus functional­ism' or 'syntax versus semantics versus pragmatics,' perhaps it is because there was never an issue there to begin with.

For the general non-fiction reader, interested in language and hu­man beings in the broadest sense, I hope to offer something different from the airy platitudes - Language Lite - that typify discussions of language (generally by people who have never studied it) in the humanities and sciences alike. For better or worse, I can write in only one way, with a passion for powerful, explanatory ideas, and a torrent of relevant detail. Given this last habit, I am lucky to be explaining a subject whose principles underlie wordplay, poetry, rhetoric, wit, and good writing. I have not hesitated to show off my favorite exam­ples of language in action from pop culture, ordinary children and adults, the more flamboyant academic writers in my field, and some of the finest stylists in English.

This book, then, is intended for everyone who uses language, and that means everyone!

I owe thanks to many people. First, to Leda Cosmides, Nancy Etcoff, Michael Gazzaniga, Laura Ann Petitto, Harry Pinker, Robert Pinker, Roslyn Pinker, Susan Pinker, John Tooby, and especially llavenil Subbiah, for commenting on the manuscript and generously offering advice and encouragement.

My home institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a special environment for the study of language, and I am grateful to the colleagues, students, and former students who shared their expertise. Noam Chomsky made penetrating criticisms and helpful suggestions, and Ned Block, Paul Bloom, Susan Carey, Ted Gibson, Morris Halle, and Michael Jordan helped me think through the issues in several chapters. Thanks go also to Hilary Bromberg, Jacob Feld­man, John Houde, Samuel Jay Keyser, John J. Kim, Gary Marcus, Neal Perlmutter, David Pesetsky, David Poppel, Annie Senghas, Karin Stromswold, Michael Tarr, Marianne Teuber, Michael Ullman, Kenneth Wexler, and Karen Wynn for erudite answers to questions ranging from sign language to obscure ball players and guitarists. The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences' librarian, Pat Claffey, and computer system manager, Stephen G. Wadlow, those most admirable prototypes of their professions, offered dedicated, expert help at many stages.

Several chapters benefited from the scrutiny of real mavens, and I am grateful for their technical and stylistic comments: Derek Bick­erton, David Caplan, Richard Dawkins, Nina Dronkers, Jane Grim­shaw, Misia Landau, Beth Levin, Alan Prince, and Sarah G. Thomason. I also thank my colleagues in cyberspace who indulged my impatience by replying, sometimes in minutes, to my electronic queries: Mark Aronoff, Kathleen Baynes, Ursula Bellugi, Dorothy Bishoe, Helena Cronin, Lila Gleitman, Myrna Gopnik, Jacques Guy, Henry Kucera, Sigrid Lipka, Jacques Mehler, Elissa Newport, Alex Rudnicky, Jenny Singleton, Virginia Valian, and Heather Van der Lely. A final thank you to Alta Levenson of Bialik High School for her help with the Latin.

I am happy to acknowledge the special care lavished by John Brockman, my agent, Ravi Mirchandani, my editor at Penguin Books, and Maria Guarnaschelli, my editor at William Morrow; Maria's wise and detailed advice vastly improved the final manuscript. Katarina Rice copy-edited my first two books, and I am delighted that she agreed to my request to work with me on this one, especially consider­ing some of the things I say in Chapter 12.

My own research on language has been supported by the National Institutes of Health (grant HD 18381) and the National Science Foundation (grant BNS 91-09766), and by the McDonnell-Pew- Cen­ter for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

ISBN: 9780141037653
ISBN-10: 0141037652
Series: Popular Penguins
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 504
Published: 1st September 2008
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 18.1 x 11.3  x 2.9
Weight (kg): 0.29
Edition Number: 1

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