How does language work? How do children learn their mother tongue? Why do languages change over time, making Chaucer's English almost incomprehensible? Steven Pinker explains the profound mysteries of language by picking a deceptively simple single phenomenon and examining it from every angle. That phenomenon - the existence of regular and irregular verbs - connects an astonishing array of topics in the sciences and humanities: the history of languages; the illuminating errors of children as they begin to speak; the sources of the major themes in the history of Western philosophy; the latest techniques in identifying genes and imaging the living brain. Pinker makes sense of all of this with the help of a single, powerful idea: that language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of creative rules.
In this latest addition to the Science Masters series, Pinker revisits the territory he covered in his bestseller The Language Instinct, using the ingredients of language and the way humans make use of them to provide insights into how the mind works. As ever, he writes beautifully and has a refreshingly extreme support for the idea of language as a living thing, where words change their meaning as time passes and rules are there to be broken. But the content of the book, although beautifully presented, is surprisingly repetitive for such a slim volume, and will seem even more familiar to anyone who has read his earlier book. For all his academic background, the best way to enjoy Pinker's latest is in the same way we enjoy Bill Bryson writing about language - for the oddities of phrasing, described in entertaining, anecdotal style. Why the correct plural of sabretooth is sabretooths, not sabreteeth, for example, and several delightful transcriptions of children's use of language, including: Child: My teacher holded the baby rabbits and we patted them. Adult: Did you say your teacher held the baby rabbits? Child: Yes. Adult: What did you say she did? Child: She holded the baby rabbits and we patted them. And in one of the most Byronesque passages, Pinker reveals why a gently lobbed catch in baseball is called a can of corn. If that's the sort of thing that appeals to you, buy this. Pinker uses the ingredients of languages and the way humans make use of them to provide insights into how the mind works. As ever, he writes beautifully and carries the reader along with the sweep of his prose. (Kirkus UK)