THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT by STEVEN PINKER

April 6, 2019

 

​​Steven Pinker is a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist and linguist, whom I find fascinating and alluring as a popular science communicator. He is an advocate of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. As a linguist he is a disciple of Noam Chomsky's theory that language is an innate faculty of mind. Pinker's interpretation of Chomsky's theory is that such innate faculty for language evolved by natural selection as an adaptation for social cooperation.  

 

Given this is a blog about LANGUAGE, I want to share with you some extracts from his first work:  “The Language Instinct” ,  a 13 chapter book he wrote in 1994. ​​ 

1. An Instinct to Acquire an Art

 

Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell the time or how the federal government works. It is a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. For these reasons some cognitive scientists have described language as psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system and a computational module. But I prefer the admittedly quaint term “instinct”. Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture. The complexity of language, from the scientist point of view, is part of our biological birthright; it is not something that parents teach their children or something that must be elaborated in school. The conception of language as a kind of instinct was first articulated in 1871 by Charles Darwin himself. In Descent of Man, Darwin concluded that language ability is “an instinctive tendency to acquire an art”, a design that is not peculiar to humans but seen in other species such as song-learning birds. William James noted that “our flexible intelligence comes from the interplay of many instincts competing”. In the 20th century, the most famous argument that language is like an instinct comes from Noam Chomsky, who developed theories of the mental grammars underlying people´s knowledge of particular languages, and of the Universal Grammar underlying the particular grammars. I think it is fruitful to consider language as an evolutionary adaptation, like the eye, its major parts designed to carry out important functions. The story of this book is highly eclectic, ranging from how DNA builds brains to the pontification of newspaper language columnists.

 

2. Chatterboxes

 

The ubiquity of complex language among human beings is a gripping discovery and, for many observers, compelling proof that language is innate. If language is an instinct, it should have an identifiable seat in the brain, and perhaps even a special set of genes that help wire it into place. No one has yet located a language organ or a grammar gene, but the search is on.

 

Broca´s aphasia and SLI (Specific Language Impairment) are cases where language is impaired and the rest of intelligence seems more or less intact. But this does not show that language is separate from intelligence.

 

To clinch the case, we need to find the opposite dissociation, linguistic idiot savants, that is people with good language and bad cognition. Steven Pinker talks about hydrocephalic children who occasionally end up significantly retarded but with unimpaired – indeed, overdeveloped – language skills. The technical terms for the condition include “cocktail party conversation” , “chatterbox syndrome” and “blathering”.

 

Fluent grammatical language can in fact appear in many kinds of people with severe intellectual impairments, like schizophrenics, Alzheimer´s patients, some autistic children and some aphasics.

 

Complex grammar is displayed across the full range of human habitats. You don´t need to have left the Stone Age; you don´t need to be middle class; you don´t need to do well in school; you don´t even need to be old enough for school. Your parents need not to bathe you in language or even command a language. You don´t need the intellectual wherewithal to function in society. Indeed, you can posses all these advantages and still not be a competent language user, if you lack just the right genes or just the right bits of brain.

 

3. Mentalese

 

In this chapter, Steve Pinker refers to George Orwell's “1984” novel, a totalitarian nightmare where the ultimate technology for thought control would be a language called “Newspeak”. And it poses the question: is thought dependent on words? Or on the contrary, is there a language of thought o “mentalese”?

 

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism  states that people's thoughts are determined by the categories made available by their language. Linguistic relativity states that differences among languages cause differences in the thoughts of their speakers.

 

The implication is heavy: the foundational categories of reality are not “in” the world but are imposed by one´s culture.

 

Steven Pinker claims that this linguistic determinism is wrong, all wrong; he justifies his position by analysing examples of studies of deaf children with lack of language, such as Ildefonso, and other languageless beings, including vervet monkeys. Then he highlights that many creative people insist that in their most inspired moments they think not in words but in mental images. Physical scientists describe their thinking as geometrical, not verbal. The most famous self-described visual thinker is Albert Einstein, who arrived at some of his insights by imagining himself riding a beam of light and looking back at a clock, or dropping  acoin while standing in a plummeting elevator.

 

The representations underlying thinking, on the one hand, and the sentences in a language, on the other, are in many ways at cross-purposes. People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache; they think in a language of thought.  This language of thought must be richer in some ways and simpler in others.

 

Knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa. People without a language would still have mentalese, and babies and many non-human animals presumably have simpler dialects.

 

So what does this mean for "Newspeak"?  Concepts of freedom and equality will be thinkable even if they are nameless in a society like the one described by Orwell in "1984." 

 

4. How Language Works

 

Language conveys news. The way language works is that each person´s brain contains a lexicon of words and the concepts they stand for (a mental dictionary) and a set of rules that combine the words to convey relationships among concepts (a mental grammar).

 

Grammar is a discrete combinatorial system, which results in the sheer vastness of language, and the fact that each of us is capable of uttering an infinite number of different sentences.

 

The infinite use of finite media distinguishes the human brain from virtually all the artificial language devices we commonly come across.

 

The design of grammar is a code that is autonomous from cognition.

 

When people learn a language they are learning how to put words in order. They do this by using categories (noun, verb, and so on) and recording which category follows which other category.

 

Grammar is also protocol that has to interconnect the ear, the mouth, and the mind, three very different kinds of machine. It cannot be tailored to any of them but must have an abstract logic of its own.

 

The idea that the human mind is designed to use abstract variables and data structures used to be a shocking and revolutionary claim, because the structures have no direct counterpart in the child´s experience.  Some of the organization of grammar would have to be there from the start, part of the language-learning mechanism that allows children to make sense out of the noises they hear from their parents.

 

The details of syntax have figured prominently in the history of psychology , because they are a case where complexity in the mind is not caused by learning. Learning is caused by complexity in the mind. And that was real news.

 

5. Words, Words, Words

 

Like syntax, morphology is a cleverly designed system , and many of the seeming oddities of words are predictable products of its internal logic. Irregularity in grammar seems like the epitome of human eccentricity and quirkiness Irregularity is tightly encapsulated in the word-building system. Irregular forms live at the bottom of word structure trees, where roots and stems from the mental dictionary are inserted. The developmental psycholinguist Peter Gordon did an experiment using compounds (i.e. “mice-infested”) that shows how children´s minds seem to be designed with the logic of word structure built in.

 

The theory of word structure explains that irregular plurals, because they are quirky, have to be stored in the mental dictionary as roots or stems, they cannot be generated by a rule. Because of this storage, they can be fed into the compounding rule that joins an existing stem to another existing stem to yield a new stem. But regular plurarls are not stems stored in the mental dictionary.

 

Crain and Nakayama´s experiment shows that in syntax children automatically distinguish between word strings and phrase structures, Gordon´s experiment proofs that in morphology children automatically distinguish between roots stored in the mental dictionary and inflected words created by a rule.

 

Words can be built out of parts by morphological rules. Words can also be seen as a rote-memorized chunk, that is, a string of linguistic stuff that is arbitrarily associated with a particular meaning. If you wish to learn more word-structure parsing I suggest reading the paper where Anna Maria di Sciullo  coined the term “listeme”,  and in which she also analyses phrase-sized units such as idioms.

 

6. The Sounds of Silence

 

All speech is an illusion. We hear speech as a string of separate words, but in the speech sound wave, one word runs into the next seamlessly. There are not little silences between spoken words the way there are white spaces between written words. We simply hallucinate word boundaries when we reach the edge of a stretch of sound that matches some entry in our mental dictionary.

 

Speech perception is another one of the biological miracles making up the language instinct, and by far the fastest way of getting information into the head through the ear. No human-made system can match a human in decoding speech.

 

The physical and neural machinery of speech is a solution to two problems in the design of the human communication system. A person might know 60,000 words but a person´s mouth cannot make 60,000 different noises. So language has exploited the principle of the discrete combinatorial system.

 

The audible signals people can produce are not a series of crisps beeps like on a touch-tone phone. Speech is a river of breath, bent into hisses and hums by the soft flesh of the mouth and throat. A speech sound is not a single gesture by a single organ. There are six speech organs acting as major articulators: the larynx, soft palate, tongue body, tongue tip, tongue root or lips.The manner of moving that articulator can be fricative, stop or vowel. Each manner or configuration is a symbol for a set of commands to the speech muscles.

Every speech sound is a combination of gestures, each exerting its own pattern of sculpting of the soundwave, all executed more or less simultaneously.

 

English requires the production of 40 phonemes, a bit above the average for the world´s languages. The assemblies of phonemes in the morphemes and words stored in memory undergo a series of adjustments before they are actually articulated as sounds, and these adjustments give further definition to the sound pattern of a language.

           

The redundancy conferred by phonological rules can compensate for some of the ambiguity in the sound wave.

 

If the sound wave is sitting at the bottom of a hierarchy from sounds to phonemes to words to phrases to the meanings of sentences to general knowledge, human perception seems to work from the top bown rather than just from the bottom up. This top-down theory of speech perception would seem to confirm the relativists philosophy that we hear what we expect to hear, that our knowledge determines our perception, and ultimately that we are not in direct contact with any objective reality. In a sense, perception that is strongly driven from the top down would be a barely controlled hallucination, and that is the problem. A perceiver forced to rely on its expectations is at a severe disadavantage in a world that is unpredictable even under the best of circumstances. There is reason to believe that human speech perception is, in fact, driven quite strongly by acoustics.

So, we can conclude that although we may call upon high-level conceptual knowledge in noisy or degraded circumstances (and even here it is not clear whether the knowledge alters perception or just allows us to guess intelligently after the fact), our brains seem designed to squeeze every last drop of phonetic information out of the sound wave itself.

 

Our sixth sense may perceive speech as language, not as sound, but it is a sense, something that connects us to the world, and not just a form of suggestibility.

 

English spelling is not completely phonemic; sometimes letters encode phoenems, but sometimes a sequence of letters is specific to a morpheme. A morphemic writing system is more useful than you might think.

 

Writing systems do not aim to represent the actual sounds of talking, which we do not hear, but the abstract units of language underlying them, which we do hear.

 

7. Talking Heads

 

Steven Pinker talks about the Loebner Prize competition, an exercise more in how to fool an amateur, not on how to get computers to use language.

 

Understanding understanding has practical applications other than building machines we can converse with. Human sentence comprehension is fast and powerful, but is not perfect. It works when the incoming conversation or text is structured in certain ways. When it is not, the process can bog down, backtrack , and misunderstand.

 

Unlike memory, which people are bad at and computers are good at, decision-making is something that people are good at and computers are bad at.

 

There is more to understanding a sentence than parsing it. Comprehension uses semantic information recovered from the tree.

 

The act of communication relies on a mutual expectation of cooperation between speaker and listener. When the receiver of a message is not cooperative but adversarial, all the missing information must be stated explicitly.

 

Human communication is not just a transfer of information like two fax machines connected with a wire; it is a series of alternating displays of behaviour by sensitive, scheming, second-guessing, social animals. When we put words into people's ears we are impinging on them and revealing our own intentions, honorable or not, just as surely as if we were touching them.

 

8. The Tower of Babel

 

The 4,000 to 6,000 languages of the planet do look impressively different from English and from one another.

 

If the basic plan of language is innate and fixed across the species, how can we explain the purpose of linguistic diversity ?

 

Differences among languages, like differences among species, are the effects of three processes acting over long spans of time. 

 

a) Variation (mutation in the case of species / linguistic innovation in the case of languages)

b) Heredity, so that descendants resemble their progenitors in these variations  (species), or the ability to learn in the case of languages

c) Isolation, by geography (species); by migration or social barriers (languages)

 

To understand why there is more than one language in Earth, then we must understand the effects of innovation, learning and migration.

 

Languages are perpetuated by the children who learn them. The wide-scale extinction of languages is reminiscent of the current (through less evere) wide-scale extinction of plant and animal species. Why should people care about endangered languages? For linguistics and the sciences of mind and brain that encompass it, linguistic diversity shows us the scope and limits of the language instinct.

 

9. Baby Born Talking – Describes Heaven

Babies in the womb can perceive the melody of mothers´ speech. After birth, babies continue to learn the sounds of their language throughout the first year.  Between seven and eight months they suddently begin to babble in real syllables like ba-ba-ba, neh-neh-neh and dee-dee-dee. Why is babbling so important? The infant is like a person who has been given a complicated piece of audio equipment bristling with unlabeled knobs and switches but missing the instruction manual. By listening to their own babbling, babies in effect write their own instruction manual; they learn how much to move which muscle in which way to make which change in the sound.

 

Around eighteen months, language takes off. Vocabulary growth jumps to the new-word-every-two-hours minimum rate that the child will maintain through adolescence. And syntax begins, generally with two word combinations.

 

Between the late twos and the mid-threes, children's language blooms into fluent grammatical conversation so rapidly that it overwhelms the researchers who study it.

 

The three year old, then, is a grammatical genius - master of most cconstructions, obeying rules far more often than flouting them, respecting language universals, erring in sensible, adultlike ways, and avoiding many kinds of errors altogether. How do they do it? 

 

Why aren't babies born talking? Part of the answer is that babies have to listen to themselves to learn how to work their articulators, and have to listen to their elders to learn communal phonemes, words and phrase orders. Why does the sequence have to take three years?  Language seems to develop about as quickly as the growing brain can handle it. 

 

It is a well documented fact that our ability to learn a second language seems to  dramatically decrease with age. Steve Pinker explains this using natural selection theories.  In general our biology through natural selection has favoured an option with benefits to the young  organisms and costs to the old ones, over an option with the same average benefit spread out evenly over the life spain. Genes that strengthen young organisms at the expense of old organisms have the odds in their favour and will tend to accumulate over evolutionary timespans. Thus language acquisition might be like other biological functions. The linguistic clumsiness of older second language students might be the price we pay for the linguistic genius we displayed as babies, just as the decrepitude of age is the price we pay for the vigor of youth.

 

10. Language Organs and Grammar Genes

In 1861, French Physician Paul Broca concluded that "the faculty for articulate language" resides in the left hemisphere of the brain." Aphasics' brains almost always show lesions in the left hemisphere. Why is language so lopsided? By the way, a better question is why is the rest of a person so symmetrical. Symmetry is an inherently improbable arrangement of matter. The molecules of life are asymmetrical, as are most plants and many animals. Making a body bilaterial and symmetrical is difficult and expensive. The crucial lifestyle feature is mobility; locomoting organisms are symmetrical side-to-side but not front-and-back. The benefits of a symmetrical body plan all have to do with sensing and moving in the bilaterally indifferent environment.

 

There are reasons to believe that the front portion of the perisylvian cortex, where Broca´s area is found, is involved in grammatical processing. However, damage to Broca´s area alone usually does not produce long-lasting severe aphasia; the surrounding areas and underlying white matter must be damaged as well. 

 

There´s another part of the brain linked to language: Wernicke´s area. Damage to Wernicke´s area produces a very different syndrom of aphasia. Patients utter fluent streams of more-or-less grammatical phrases, but their speech makes no sense and is filled with  neologisms and word substitutions.

 

Steven Pinker concludes:  a very gross anatomy of the language sub-organs within the perisylvian area might be:

  • front the perisylvian (including Broca´s area) = grammatical processing

  • rear of the perisylvian (including Wernicke´s and the three-lobe junction) = the sounds of words, specially nouns and some aspects of their  meaning.

Why has it been so hard to draw an atlas of the brain with areas for different parts of language?  It would not be surprising if language subcenters are idiosyncratically tangled or scattered over the cortex. The brain is a special kind of organ, the organ of computation, and unlike an organ that moves stuff around in the physical world such as the hip or the heart, the brain does not need its functional parts to have nice cohesive shapes. Its parts can be put in different places and do the same thing, just as the wires connecting a set of electrical components can be haphazardly stuffed into a cabinet.

 

11. The Big Bang

 

Noam Chomsky believes that a uniquely human language instinct seems to be incompatible with the modern Darwinian theory of evolution, in which complex biological systems arise by the gradual accumulation over generations of random genetic mutations that enhance reproductive success.

 

While Steven Pinker agrees with Chomsky´s idea of a universal grammar , language being innate to humans, he seeks the connection to Darwin´s theory of evolution. Pinker offers a very complex analysis, aiming to persuade the reader that although we know few details about how the language instinct evolved, there is no reason to doubt that the principal explanation is the same as for any other complex instinct or organ, Darwin´s theory of natural selection. The gradualness that Darwin made so much about applies to lineages of individual organisms in a bushy family tree, not to entire living species in a great chain. To determine when in fact language began, we cannot use the idea of phyletic continuity.

 

Although natural selection involves incremental steps that enhance functioning, the enhancements do not have to be to an existing module. They can slowly build a module out of some previously nondescript stretch of anatomy, or out of the nooks and crannies between existing modules.  Language could have arisen by revamping of primate brain circuits that originally had no role in vocal communication, and by the addition of some new ones.  Al Galaburda and Terrence Deacon have discovered that in monkey brains there are homologues to Wernicke´s and Broca´s areas and a band of fibers connecting the two.

 

Anthropologists have noted that tribal chiefs are often both gifted orators and highly polygynous .  I suspect that evolving humans lived in a world in which language was woven into the intrigues of politics, economics, technology, family, sex, and friendship that played key roles in individual reproductive success.

 

12. The Language Mavens

 

Most of the prescriptive rules of language mavens make no sense on any level. They are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since. Writers such as Shakespeare have flouted these rules, for the rules confirm neither to logic nor to tradition. 

 

Language mavens began in the eighteenth century. Scholars began to critcize the London dialect, which had suddently become an important world language. Latin was still considered the language of enlightenment and learning, and it was offered as an ideal of precision and logic to which English should aspire. Casting English grammar into the mold of Latin grammar made the books useful as a way of helping young students learn Latin.

 

Once introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Mavens can be responsible for a gross undersestimation of the linguistic wherewithal of the common person. Mavens are a lot out of touch with modernce science of language.

 

Every component of a language changes over time enduring many losses. But the richness of language is always being replenished.

 

13. Mind Design

 

People are so passionate about studying language, because language is the most accessible part of the mind. People hope knowledge about language will  lead to insight about human nature.

 

Modern intellectual life is suffused with a relativism that denies that there is such a thing as universal human nature, and the existence of a language instinct in any form, challenges that denial. The doctrine underlying that relativism is the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), which began to dominate intellectual life in the 1920s. This model is based on 2 ideas:

 

a) Whereas animals are rigidly controlled by their biology, human behaviour is determined by culture, an autonomous system of symbols and values.

 

b) Human infants are born with nothing more than a few reflexes and an ability to learn.

 

The SSSM serves as the secular ideology of our age, as the position on human nature that any decent person should hold. The alternative, sometimes called "biological determinism" can lead to many of the horrors of recent centuries: slavery, colonialism, racial and ethnic discrimination, economic and social castes, sexims and genocide.

 

This malleability of human nature was described by the psychologist John Watson and also by the anthropologist Margaret Mead.

 

However, an alternative to the Standard Social Science Model has emerged, and it´s called the Integrated Causal Model, because it seeks to understand how evolution caused the emergence of a  brain, which causes psychological processes like knowing and learning, which can cause the acquisition of the values and knowledge that  make up a person´s culture.

 

They also call it evolutionary psychology  and it takes many of the lessons of human language and applies them to the rest of the psyche:

 

a) just as language is an improbable feat requiring intricate mental software, the other accomplishments of mental life that we take for granted, like perceiving, reasoning, and acting, require their own well engineered mental software.

 

b) evolutionary psychology does not disrespect learning, but seeks to explain it. 

 

c) learning mechanisms for different spheres of human experience - language, morals, food, social relations, the physical world - are often found to work at cross-purposes. A mechanism designed to learn the right thing in one of these domains learns exactly the wrong thing in the others. This suggests that learning is accomplished not by some single general-purpose device, but by different modules. People are flexible, not because the environment pounds or sculpts their minds into arbitrary shapes, but because their minds contain so many different modules, each with provisions to learn in its own way.

 

d) culture refers to the process whereby particular kinds of learning contagiously spread from person to person in a community and minds become coordinated into shared patterns, just as "a language" or "a dialect" refers to the process whereby the different speakers in a community acquire highly similar mental grammars.

 

What are the modules of the humand mind? Do we possess an innate module that gives us basic intuitions about biology, plants and animals? Yes, Steven argues: special intuitions about living things begin early in life.

 

The language instinct suggests a mind of adapted computational  modules rather than the blank slate, lump of wax, or general-purpose computer of the Standard Social Science Model. 

 

But how can we then discard repugnant doctrines like "biological determinism"?

 

By emphasizing that it is the commonalities among all people that are innate, not the differences.

 

VOCABULARY LIST for this post (download as a pdf)

 

alluring ->  (atractivo, atrayente, seductor) having a strongly attractive or enticing quality 

 

blank slate-> (tabla rasa, pizarra en blanco)  tabula rasa theory: the mind in its hypothetical primary blank or empty state before receiving outside impressions

 

blathering -> (decir tonterías)  to talk for a long time in a silly or annoying way

 

bog down -> (atascarse)  to cause (something) to sink in wet ground

 

bristling / bristle -> (erizarse, ponerse de punta)  a short, stiff hair, usually one of many

 

clinch -(resolver de una vez, decidir) to finally get or win something:

 

compelling -> (irresistible) Strong. If a reason, argument, etc. is compelling, it makes you believe it or accept it because it is so strong:

 

cross-purposes -> (propósitos opuestos) a purpose usually unintentionally contrary to another purpose of oneself or of someone or something else —usually used in plural

 

drab -> (monótono) monotonous

 

dreary -> (triste)  dull, bleak, and lifeless; depressing

 

flout-(mofarse de)  openly disregard (a rule, law, or convention).

 

folly -> (locura, disparate)  the fact of being stupid, or a stupid action, idea, etc.

 

gripping discovery -> (descubrimiento cautivante o fascinante) Something that is gripping is so interesting or exciting that it holds yourattention completely.  A discovery is the process of finding information, a place, or an object, especiallyfor the first time

 

interplay -> (interacción) the effect that two or more things have on each other

 

nooks and crannies -> (rincones y grietas) Everywhere, as in I've searched for it in every nook and cranny, and I still can't find it. This metaphoric idiom pairs nook , which has meant “an out-of-the-way corner” since the mid-1300s, with cranny , which has meant “a crack or crevice” since about 1440. 

 

savant -> (erúdito) a person with a high level of knowledge or skill, especially someone who is less able in other ways

  

screwball -> (excéntrico) a person who behaves in a strange and funny way

 

sheer vastness -> (pura inmensidad) Sheer is an adjective  used to emphasize how very great, important, or powerful aquality or feeling is. Vastness as a noun refers to the quality of being extremely big.

 

quaint ->   (pintoresco) attractive because of being unusual and especially old-fashioned

 

suffused -> (infundido, bañado) gradually spread through or over

 

wherewithal -> (los medios) a noun referring to the means or resources one has at one's disposal 

 

Now that you´ve made it through reading and learning new vocabulary, sit down and enjoy watching Steve Pinker summarize his theory on language in this talk: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain. 

 

 

 

 

 

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