The Language Instinct

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Steven Pinker lost me as a buyer of his thesis with the very second sentence of his book:

For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in other’s brains with exquisite precision.

If you take that for granted, Pinker’s book will seem compelling and not especially controversial. Steven Pinker clearly takes it for granted, perhaps because he can’t conceive of how we could possibly communicate effectively and coherently if it were not true.

Consider the following, which I think perfectly encapsulates the world view Pinker can’t conceive of, by Ogden Nash:

Caught in a mesh of living veins,
In cell of padded bone,
He loneliest is when he pretends
That he is not alone.
We’d free the incarcerate race of man
That such a doom endures
Could only you unlock my skull,
Or I creep into yours.

Ogden Nash, Listen..., reprinted in Candy is Dandy: The Best of Ogden Nash

To my way of thinking, it is the very fact that we can’t “shape events in other’s brains with exquisite precision” — or with any reliable certainty at all, that describes the human condition. The frisson created by precisely that ambiguity underpins all communication; it is the source of irony, tragedy, comedy, invention and imagination. Any theory of language which denies that fundamental contingency of human communication (as this one does) is going to have to prove it, and displacing that onus is a heavy task indeed.

Pinker’s psycho-linguistics makes precisely that denial, by holding that all human communication — every language — shares an inate, evolutionary programmed Universal Grammar, precisely because Pinker can’t conceive how else human communication could be possible.

I’m no academic, and certainly I have no background in linguistics. Given that this theory — which is from the same tradition as Noam Chomsky’s — has been the ascendancy amongst academic linguistics for the best part of the last thirty years, Steven Pinker being one of the leading “normal scientists” within the paradigm (if I should be so bold as to use that word), and that The Language Instinct is considered fairly widely to be his magnum opus, I was expecting to have my naive relativistic assumptions carefully and systematically dissected, then annihilated, one by one.

So imagine my surprise to find that in the place of carefully drawn arguments and compelling statistical data, one finds a tissue of anecdotal arguments carefully selected to fit the theory, arguments from authority (“Chomsky is one of the ten most cited writers in all of the humanities”), dubious suppositions in place of statistical data (the “it is difficult to imagine the following grammatical construction being used” sort of thing), begged questions, non sequiturs, and Roger Penrose-style irrelevant scientific waffle — especially as regards evolution — and a decided absence of any consideration of competing theories of linguistics — and straw men versions of those which do rate a mentioned.

In short, Steven Pinker employs just about every illegitimate arguing technique in the book. His theory completely fails to account for metaphor (metaphor is barely mentioned in the book), nor the incremental development of language, the evolution of different languages with different grammars and vocabularies. At times Pinker is forced to argue that the grammar of our language is sometimes different from the words we actually speak and write, containing unspoken “inaudible symbols” representing a word or phrase which has been moved elsewhere in the sentence, so the sentence “The car was put in the garage”, according to Pinker’s Universal Grammar should technically be rendered as: “was put the car in the garage”, and the construction we use can only be explained by movement of “The car” and the insertion in its place of an inaudible “trace”:

"[The car] was put [trace] in the garage”.

Now, again I am no technical linguist, but this has all the hallmarks of pure bull manure to me.

Finally, Pinker is at pains to point out that Universal Grammar is only ever applicable to oral language: written language didn’t arise for centuries after oral grammar “evolved” as a phenotype.

But this hardly helps Pinker, since (as he himself points out, with reference to a transcript of the Watergate Tapes) when people talk in ordinary conversation they almost never use complete grammatical sentences: they interrupt themselves, they rely on physical gestures, they break off in mid stream and start a new thought, they don’t punctuate (there’s no unequivocal punctuation in spoken English), all the time.

As is fashionable amongst the “reductivist” and “evolutionary” set these days (a set I would otherwise, in general terms, consider myself in agreement with), relativist arguments are scorned. But Pinker’s paradigm implies that, provided we are competent in constructing our own sentences, we should all understand each other perfectly, all the time: there should be no ambiguity; no room for miscontrual; no possibility for evolution in ideas or language. It is difficult to see how anyone could believe such a thing. But neither the structure of language and grammar nor its practical use needs to be perfect for effective communication at some level to be possible, and surely that is all that is needed. The beauty of the contingent view of language, which Pinker seems unable to appreciate, is how it can account for the missed margin of communication which might explain the everyday cultural and interpretative problems we all face, and the figurative and metaphorical power we all find at our disposal. Ogden Nash’s dilemma is our dilemma, however much Steven Pinker might wish it were otherwise.

An earlier reviewer has mentioned Geoffrey Sampson’s “the Language Instinct Debate” as a compelling antidote to Pinker’s world view. Having recently read it (on the strength of that recommendation), I would firmly agree. In perhaps an ill-advisedly grumpy tone, Sampson — whose position at the University of Sussex inevitably means his academic profile is lower than Pinker’s or Chomsky’s — systematically and convincingly annihilates many of the arguments (such as they are) in Pinker’s work.