Saturday, December 28, 2013

Rule of Words—Not the How, But the Why

Steven Pinker has a strong claim to the niche his books occupy: He explains in language accessible to the layman how our brains work. In Words and Rules, Pinker expands on the language-development concepts he introduced in The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, to give us a clearer picture of why* this language "trick" works. 
Language comes so naturally that it is easy to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is... We humans are fitted with a means of sharing our ideas, in all their unfathomable vastness... Yet to me the first and deepest challenge in understanding language is accounting for its boundless expressive power. What is the trick behind our ability to fill one another's heads with so many different ideas?
Pinker tosses out ideas like popcorn pouring from the movie-theatre machine: Language acquisition is hard-wired, but the exact sounds we will use requires a software installation. Thus languages are culturally acquired, and children who miss the "acquisition window" are condemned to learn their own "native language" as a foreign tongue. It's hard for adults to learn languages unless they have been exposed to multiple tongues during the acquisition window, in which case the "multi-lingual" switch turns on. Sounds used in language seem onomatopoeic because they are. English is terse because of syncretism and allomorphy. Adding human vocal chords to a chimpanzee would not be sufficient to give it an oral language, because the brain structures aren't there. 

Whoa, too much popcorn! 

Pinker makes these concepts easy enough to acquire, because he provides a structure to fit them into. And that is precisely his premise. Our brains are structured to acquire language. This is a fascinating book, and gives a fair voice to competing theories of language development.