Friday, June 28, 2013

The Language Instinct

The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker
Read: 9 May to 22 June 2013
4 / 5 stars

I have this incredible mental block about reviewing nonfiction.

My formal linguistics experience is limited to exactly one History of the English Language class as a college junior (and it remains one of the most fascinating, satisfying and illuminating classroom experiences I've ever had, university-level or otherwise), which was about when I realized that the study of language was up there with the school paper and my creative-writing courses in terms of the all-over fulfillment I found in it. It helped that I had an enthusiastic professor whose wealth of knowledge and general zeal turned my disappointment in the English department's lack of additional linguistic offerings into a fervent hunt for extracurricular reading material regarding the topic, though I can't help but feel that my self-guided tour through the field isn't yielding the same benefits I'd've received from exploring the same terrain with an expert leading the way. Hence my concern that I'll sound like I'm trying to pretend that I know what I'm talking about on some deeper level when my background in the roots of language is far more recreational than academic. All's I can say for sure is that The Language Instinct was great fun, beautifully written and an absolute whirlwind of information that covers a dizzying array of unexpected but thought-provokingly relevant subjects.

Oh, and that Steven Pinker has the most admirably disheveled hair since Georges Perec. Their locks are not to be trifled with, nor, clearly, are their minds.

The last language-centric book I read argued in favor of a point that had been laughed into noncredibility for years thanks to the implied racism it still carried from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis days, which is that the world actually looks different based on one's view of the world based on his or her culture and language (Through the Language Glass, written by Guy Deutscher and published in 2010 -- and which I must admit to having read long enough ago that I have shamefully forgotten many of its finer details but do recall as having made a rather convincing argument, as it delved into stuff such as how a language can reflect a culture's attitude toward its women) -- an hypothesis that Pinker decried within the first 50 pages of this 1994 bestseller as "wrong, all wrong," as it is his view that "discussions that assume that language determines thought carry on only by a collective suspension of disbelief." My copy of The Language Instinct includes Pinker's chapter-by-chapter asides about updates in the many areas he explored in a book he published more than two decades ago, including the neo-Whorfism that has sprung up in recent years, a revival that allowed works such as Through the Language Glass to be taken more seriously because the misguided blinders and red herrings of the linguistic avenue of contemplation have finally fallen away and its points can be made in such a way to sidestep the unfortunate pitfalls of the past.

Seeing the inverse of an argument made just as successfully as my initial exposure to it was what sucked me in for good with this book. The overlapping of an argument's two sides and seeing familiar names, familiar backgrounds, familiar failings and completely different conclusions were all strangely rewarding payoffs for my own curious, solitary explorations.

And that spark of recognition just kept cropping up in myriad forms as I read on and on (and on and on, as it took me, like, two months to finish this -- absolutely no fault of Pinker's, but rather that of my compulsion to juggle two and three books at once and work's nasty habit of reducing my reading time in two-week cycles). While the biology and neurobiology and child development and abnormal psych were all a bit of alien territory for me, Pinker presented them all in such accessible ways that my tactile-learner self was picking up everything he was putting down. Which made the friendlier faces I'd seen before all the more inviting: The progression of Old English to Middle English to Modern English was like having tea (or mead) with an old friend, reading about the Great Vowel Shift was like reminiscing with an old lover and wondering if maybe the stars are finally aligned in our favor, the uncanny commonalities between seemingly unrelated tongues was a kiddie ball pit wrapped in a trampoline for my brain, and the pages and chapters of grammatical theory? Be still, my pedantic heart! I didn't even mind, as a happily neurotic proofreader, when Pinker started asserting that maybe the Grammar Mavens have their priorities all wrong, that even nontraditional dialects have their merits, that "whom" ought to go the way of "ye" and its other equally antiquated brethren, that it's okay to hang on to the rules of usage for clarity's sake rather than browbeating those poor folks who don't work themselves into paroxysms of glee at the very notion of sentence diagrams over their truly nitpicky transgressions.

I had no idea the lengths and detail necessary in asserting that something so mind-bogglingly complex but is so universally taken for granted -- that is, human speech -- is a deep-seated biological impulse, hard-wired into our brains to the point that we are all, in fact, baby geniuses when it comes to sussing out most of the nuances of our diabolically tricky native languages by the age of three. I had no well-formed opinion on the matter of language as a learned habit versus a communicative imperative instilled in us via evolution before coming into this but did Pinker ever reel me in, hold my attention and make me want to delve deeper into his research, theories and positions regarding the language instinct. Bearing witness to the impressive lengths he goes to to cover all his ground from every angle is reward enough for hearing him out for nearly 500 pages, because Pinker's dedication to the language instinct is evident enough in the miles of homework he did to make his point with armfuls of wide-ranging detail and chapter upon chapter of some truly compelling writing.

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