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A Review Of "The Language Instinct"

It is important to note that all the quotes in the following article are from a book by Steven Pinker “on the language instinct” and should be credited as such and for any demerits mistakes, misrepresentations or misquotes the full responsibility is mine.

“Finally since language is the product of a well engineered biological instinct, we shall see that it is not the nutty barrel of monkeys that entertainer-columnists make it out to be.” I looked at languages and communications between human beings and it rather seemed that language emerged out of the need to give and take to and from the other. As the number of the items and the number of the individuals that needed to take and give increases and the paths the items to be given and taken increases, there arose the need to sophisticate the language in manners and ways to transverse the same distance and through the same intricate paths.

As evolutionarily as evolution itself at each stage and at every encounter consciously and rationally coined and agreed on. As such it seems rather a conscious act than it is a biological instinct. The ability to generate a sound of frequencies, pitches, wavelengths and amplitudes of the known ranges, sings and gestures and the need to communicate may be smart biological engineering, but language itself is a conscious effort of the use of these capabilities.

“The conception of language as a kind of instinct was first articulated in 1871 by Darwin himself. In THE DESCENT OF MAN he had to contend with language because of its confinement to humans seemed to present a challenge to his theory.” It is rather the reference to the confinement of language to humans that throw me a little off balance and made me look at the issue from a different angle. It would be rather a bit naive it seems that other animals do not communicate African killer bees when touched spreading the new and run to kill with hurray specific to a war cry and dispatch in a kamikaze army of fighters. Or the Hyenas cry of summons for a mill upon finding a Caracas of a kill. Or the love songs of different birds and insects and flies, have no language may be a little far fetched. May be rudimentary yet language enough with its own rules and specificity of usage as grammar is to us to communicate an event, a need from and a need to dependent on the level of social and mental development relative to that of ours (humans).

“As no child has an instinctive tendency to brew, bake or write. More over no philologist now supposes that any language has been deliberately invented” It is important to bear in mind that our eyes may have been exposed to light days after we were born at about seven days, but were we exposed to sound after or before we were born? Could we have been hearing sound and particularly conversations of our mothers and any and every one that she had conversed with after our ears and all our bodily audio mechanism were formed? Is it possible that our ears got exposed to audio sound and audio conversation ahead of videos communication? We might have been susceptible to audio sound than we are of visible light even while we were in our mother’s wombs. Having said that would it be then possible that children are more inclined to verbalize more efficiently than may show the “instinctive” tendency to cook or bake and brew, for they are visually acquired learning processes and skills.

Lastly what we rule out as instinctive may not be as instinctive as we believe it to be. It was a day after I had jotted down this note that I met a PhD. from Ghana on the bus home from an outing who teaches English in one of the US high schools and ask him how he was able to teach as a foreigner with such a heavy wall cracking accent children their own native language, The answer was not so complicated to him as it sounded to me. He simply told me it is the rules of the language that I teach, without the rules they might communicate, but they might as well communicate with a sign which would have been inept to explain and recognize the cultural, social, economic and technical sophistication of the past, present and the future. The implications are clear that I need no further explanations. Every trained body tends to execute what he or she is trained to do as instinctively as instinctive response can be, while others that are not so trained will have to think and think twice before acting on the same issue, act, or an activity.

Are instinctive responses that need no rationalization because their truth has been established in the mind of the actor that rationalizing would be unimportant and the response is clear and uncompromisingly predetermined while a conscious responses is pretty dynamic, flexible and variable dependent? A conscious act that is repeated and repeated over many a times becomes an act that is acted on without being thought about as though it is ingrained in the genes of the actor. After all what is ingrained in our genes are repetitious resistive and adaptive acts forced upon them, you and us by the needs and demands of our surrounding or environment.

When do we begin to react and be stimulated by sound? Would that have something to do for children’s instinctive tendency to “deliberately create language?” Verbalize prior to visualize.

“Therefore a language cannot be a repertoire of responses: the brain must contain a recipe of program that can build an unlimited set of sentences out of a finite list of words.” If I may say that seems suggestive that language is learned and gradually developed out of the needs to and from than it is a deliberate invention devoid of need. While deliberate invention predates need and use, language does not seem to predate use and need but to fulfill it. There does not seem that there is a chicken and egg argument here, but an A to B straight-line relationship.

“And Chomsky’s arguments about the nature of the language faculty are based on technical analysis of word and sentence structure, often couched in abstruse formalisms.” Language is a result of a need to give and take to the other, self, and from as such it is a result of a constant negotiation and agreement which has to be kept and observed, and to that end it has to be told and retold, read and re-read to generations. It is to me this repetitious propagation of the agreements reached and the negotiations conducted that what Chomsky referred to as abstruse formalist couching. If that is he wouldn’t have been far from the truth I see in my untrained layman’s views.

“The great majority of sentences were grammatical, especially in working class speech, with higher percentage of grammatical sentences in working-class speech. The higher percentage of ungrammatical sentences was found in the proceedings of learned academic conferences.” The recognition of the existence of a language difference between those that are learned and not may be in order considering the sentences made about Plato walking Among Macedonian herdsmen as far as language is concerned. “There are Stone Age societies, but there is no such thing as Stone Age language. When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the headhunter savages of Assam.”

Thou it is clear from the outset that language carries a badge of class distinction the psychology that contributed to the grammatical discrepancy between the workingman and the academic will not pass without grabbing a due attention and beg for an explanation. Technicality and logicality, adherence and experiment, instinct and rational, seem to be in conflict at or at least at odds here than it is enlightenment and ignorance or wealth and poverty that are on opposing sides of the presumed or real issue. The working man is engaged in a rigorous repetitive work in his day-to-day activity, for him mistakes are costly that could throw him in to the darkness that he is not prepared to deal with, his sphere and peripheral vision may be is limited to the known and long been established, contrary to the academic who is in constant search and who is an adventurer in the wilderness of the unknown in search of answers and new findings, whose sphere is not limited to what is known and established, and is often in constant touch with new and the unknown and yet to be established. He is not more technical, but logical, and grammar is not logical than it is technical, it is by enlarge to be learned than it is to be deduced or rationalized. Is it any wonder then that our work and the environment we find ourselves in manifests itself in many ways including in our grammatical usage?

“Necessity being the mother of invention, language could have been invented by resourceful people a number of times long ago; —– Universal grammar would simply reflect the Universal limitations on human information processing. All languages words for “water” and “foot” because all people need to refer to water and feet. No language has word a million syllables long for no person would have the time to say it. It is the word and the essence of invention of a language that is of importance and may be worth the energy and discussion time here. It is rather a similar and like the ongoing discussion between evolution and creation, natural language seems to evolve over time in response to the human development and the division of labor that the complexity and enormity of human development brought about. It might have been helped and enhanced by the deep need to complain, but complaints would have done much in a society devoid of division of labor, in which case the complainer and the complaint addressee would be the same.

Division of labor did not only help develop language it indeed helped develop languages with in languages, sub cultures within cultures, like the technical terminologies of the medical doctor to the engineer, the pharmacist to the lawyer and other variances the convergence of languages in divergence of technical languages as specializations continue to divide and subdivide disciplines in to sub-disciplines in direct proportion to our growth in number.The point here is to note that as our journey forward in the universe in our forward developmental path the path seems to narrow like a light that projects forward and in for the depth we gain we give in width. Unlike the inventions language need coinage and convention and agreement, often inventions are real objective existences that need no conventional agreement but introduction of its reality and convincing of its reality, its naming may be conventional, but its reality an alterable fact that makes the naming a language and the creation an invention. I see a clear dichotomy between the two. As much as language as a creation of human ingenuity,it evolved over time that enables it to shape and reshape instantaneously in response to dynamic needs of society and propagate generating acceptance.

“The crux of the argument is that complex language is universal, because children actually invent it, generation after generation -not because they are taught, not because they are generally smart, not because it is useful to them, just because they can’t help it.” If there is anything at all they cannot help is, that they have to express all and everything, any every new idea and new relation that comes about in their time as it feels, sounds and looks relative to their time. As they progress forward in time they are often and always are expected to come head on with ever emerging new social relationships,It is more than anything the emergence of new reality and the need to express and exchange this new reality that literally engenders the rejuvenation of language. If there is anything innate here is the universal human urge to express and exchange any and every new thing, both for the purposes of self-fulfillment and recognition through the thrilling medium of language.

“Bickerton notes that if the grammar of Creole is largely the product of the minds of children, unadulterated by complex language input from their parents, it should provide a particularly clear window on the innate grammatical machinery of the brain.” One thing that shouts out for a notice seems that linguistic complexity arises out of the need to express complex relationships and complex realities, yet deep in the human psyche rests the effort to simplify the complex and economize time and energy that seems the reason for any language not having a million syllable word as described earlier. “Extraordinary acts of creation by children do not require the extra ordinary circumstances of deafness or plantation babbles the same kind of linguistic genius is involved every time a child learns his or her mother tongue.” I wondered why it is often “Mom” or “Dad”, “Ma” or “Pa” that are the first words that a child learns and are often the most common of any word in any human language and may be more. It is more than likely it is the result of the first encounter, interaction and first exchanges with unparalleled linearity and simplicity. The child’s world of learning starts with such simplicity and linearity that the learning effort seems and may be is simpler, but as the child grows and enters in to a complex relationships and the need for him/her and from him/her to express and understand more complex scenarios arise and grow, he/she would have already grown out of his/her childhood that the attributes will no more hold true for him/her, that I feel there may be an over emphasis in the ability to learn and under emphasis in the complexity of what is being learned. It is as though our ability to learn has never gotten up to speed with our relationships and exposure that needed cognition, rationalization, understanding, committal to memory and expression. We grow but we do not seem to grow faster or nearly as fast as the our individual universe we find ourselves in and as we age the enormity of the universe that encompass us seems to grow exponentially that our progress pales in comparison.

“By the age of three and half or earlier children use the -s agreement suffix in more than ninety percent of the sentences that require it, and virtually never use it in the sentences that forbid it. This mastery is part of their grammar explosion, a period of several months in the third year of life during which children suddenly begin to speak in fluent, sentences, respecting most of the fine points of their community’s spoken language. For example, a pre-schooled with a pseudonym Sarah, whose parents had only a high school education can be seen obeying the English agreement rule unless though it is in complex sentences like.Just as interestingly, Sarah could not have been imitating her parents, memorizing verbs with -s’ pre-attached. Sarah sometimes uttered word forms she could not possibly have heard it from her parents.” Like all machines it is fundamentally important to be reminded and not forget the fact that the human body is an input-process-output machine, though a biological machine, and among parts of the human body the brain as well is vividly adherent to this truth. The brain may be a thinking, cognitive and re-cognitive organ, yet could only act on what is fed in to it through the five sense organs and more if there are any. This truth is also asserted by the mere fact that Sarah did not speak in any other languages that are not within the environmental constraints of hers, but her community’s language. It might have been farfetched that Sarah could not have mimicked anyone else, but here parents during her three and half years of life and nine months prior as though she and her parents lived in total seclusion. It is rather clear that Little Sarah has always been immersed in a sea of words, phrases and sentences right from the moment of her inception to the day she spoke that first word and the rest of her grammatical sentences of her last at the dawn her life in the far future. Often adherence and respect for the law entails through formal and informal ways learning and knowing the law like every lay man like myself who had not been to Harvard or Yale law school, but to the greatest university of all, living in legal environment and among law abiding people. It seems to me respect for the law and living by it presupposes knowledge of the law. Little Sara might have not received formal training of the grammatical rules, but have lived it however brief to know what it is like and how it ought to be respected. If there is any difference between someone who speaks the language within the grammatically acceptable range without having to receive a formal training is the length of exposure to the language. The conclusion that she could not have been imitating her parents or the speakers of the community is as puzzling to me as to why she did not speak in tongue, and if she did we wouldn’t have called it a speech, or grammatical any way. It is a puzzle like Langston Hues church experience.

“She must, then, have created these forms herself, using an unconscious version of the English agreement rule. The very concept of imitation is suspect to begin with (if children are general imitators, why don’t they imitate their parents’ habit of sitting quietly in airplanes?). There are laws that are learned and others that are followed as a course of nature for they are hard written in to our body. Some that are mimicked and others that are rationalized and followed, never mind, that their parents were not as hyper as they are when they were at the age, may be they are not mimicking the current behavior of their parents, but they could be mimicking their parent’s whole life and they are just beginning. As they are hyper now as their parents were then, they would definitely calm and act if not exactly as them but as close when they get to their present parents age. As to the hyper activity of the children now there are other biological factors at work more than mimicking and not of their parents that makes them clearly and distinctively defining of their age, like stimulating growth, burning energy, availability of space, flexibility of body etc. As much as children are like their parents I admit they are not photocopies of their parents nor do I say they are parrot like mimickers, but learners and learning is not as we all agree mimicking. It has a growth and developmental factor in it. They might be slightly or completely differently than their parents, yet, I see no doubt that their basis remain learning and learning from their parents and most of all from their environment, whether or not, they are consciously thought by their parents, which will be to their advantage tremendously believe if they are, they have proved over and again that they will learn from their environment no matter what.

Broca’s aphasia syndrome a handicap rather that was described non-handicap and given credit in ways where credit is not due seemed to me sympathy may be no less than an insult to the injury that those patients suffer from. It is a Mr. Ford who had suffered a stroke the subject of the study and described as “Gardner notes” He was alert, attentive, and fully aware of what he was and why he was there. Intellectual functions not closely tied to language, such as knowledge of right and left, ability to draw with left (unpracticed) hand, to calculate, read maps, set clocks make construction or carry out commands, were all preserved. His intelligence quotient in none verbal areas was in the high average range. “Indeed, the dialog shows that Mr. Ford, like many Broca’s aphasics, showed an acute understanding of his handicap.” (XII) There are indeed a number of intellectual handicaps that Mr. Ford and his Broca’s aphasic collogues suffer from as described, from analytical skills to verbal communication impairments, yet Mr. Ford and his likes are as is stated acquire and posses a great deal of raw empirical data besides being able to in ways and manners that are similar to instinctive responses that may not tax greatly on their analytical mind.

How is it then this acquisition of raw empirical data and instinctive responses did not tax on their intelligence quotient? Or is it even possible to conceive intellect without analytical mind devoid of coherent verbalization or speech? If so how different could we be from the rest of our down line relatives? Or perhaps incoherence does not undermine the very essence of integrity, viability and predictability, which are attributes of intelligence as opposed to amorphous and randomness. It is rather eye catching to read the comments about the grammatical fluency of the children with William’s syndrome and not think about the causes of our diversity as humans and living species. It is rather in our deficiencies as much as our special gifts that our diversity rests its cause. I find it hard that grammatical fluency not attributed to intellectual depth and width than simple construction of very common words in a repetitive common everyday acts.”Your parents need not bathe you in language withal to function in society, the skills to keep house and home together or a particularly firm grip on reality. Indeed you can posses all these advantages and still not be a competent language user, if you lack just the right genes or the right bit s of brain. (XIII)”

It is the assertion that not all of us lack those right genes or in their right combination for some of the needed skills and abilities, but some few classified as handicapped that do underscores the fact that we all are not equally proficient in all fields for the same reason. While the severity of our deficiency puts us in categories under average, average and over average, it seems worth noting the specific and relativistic nature of any and all handicap under consideration. It would be unfair it seems to pass this opportunity without amplifying the fact that in its uneven distribution in the universal space matter and life has in it to compensate where it is missing, that there is not an all out idiot nor an all out smart for a reason and by a cause. For and by reason of dynamism for and by division of labor by diversity for total interdependence so we are un even, evenly gifted and unequal equally talented. XIV”-a concept is unimaginable and therefore nameless; at the end of the second, a concept is nameless and therefore unimaginable. Is thought dependent on words? Do people think literally think in English, Cherokee, Kivunjo, or, by 2050 Newspeak?”

A concept is so named because a reality of interacting material entities and a relationship between and among them is conceived and recognized. The interacting entities and the relationship they establish may not be verbalized or given names yet if conceived and recognized they therefore are represented in space and time in a condition and it seems they are imagined and they are named concepts and concepts are named therefore are imaginable and represented. At the end thinking may seem possible without words but not without representation of some sort or another. Mr. Joe dog often communicates to his master what his intents and needs are by some action and gestures and even sounds and Mr. Joe does likewise, can we here imagine the concept of Dog and man communication? And give it a name or we can’t imagine it and can’t name it? If anything at all we can only entertain the thought of nonexistence in nonexistence not the existence none existence, thus we cannot imagine what we cannot represent and we cannot represent what we can’t imagine. It is rather the need to communicate that will necessitate the naming of the entities and the relationships imagined in an already existing language than the conceptualization and thinking it.

“The insult relies on the fact that a sentence is the smallest thing that can be either true or false: a single word cannot be either. A sentence, then, must express some kind of meaning that does not clearly reside in its nouns and verbs but that embraces the entire combination and turns it into proposition that can be true or false. Take, for example, the optimistic sentence The Red Sox will win the World Series. The word will do not apply to the Red Sox alone, or to the World Series alone or to winning alone.

It applies to a whole concept, The Red Sox winning the World Series. That concept is timeless and therefore truth less”. There are two fundamental seeming flows in the statement quoted above. The fact that a single word is either true or false and the parallels timeless to truethlessness are worth some exploratory examinations. To me a word and any word represents a reality that is, was or an assumed and agreed on will be fact. Therefore ,that that was. That is and will be cannot be anything but the truth. Even that that will be remains till such time it is proven otherwise. The fact that The Red Sox’s winning of the World Series for one sounds and feels somewhat prop estrous for that concept came to existence only after the inception at most or formation of the Red Sox at least and not only the timeless claim baseless but one end bounded that as it is the equation of timeless to truth less is a denial of the existence of an absolute truth. That that defies the change in time or a change that happens at the speed of change of time, and the ultimate speed at which time changes is at the speed of light.

A change that exceeds the speed of light therefore ceases to exist and cannot be conceptualized. the inner workings of syntax are important for another reason. Grammar offers a clear refutation of the empiricist doctrine that there is nothing in the mind that was not in first in the senses. Traces, cases, X-bars, and the other paraphernalia of syntax are colorless, odorless, and tasteless, but they or something like them, must be a part of our subconscious mental life.” It was early in the discussion of that I tried to establish the fact that the human mind is a biological input, process output machine, and the empiricist view seems to conform to that not without a reason, but rather for a profound reason. It would be rather important to acknowledge and recognize all that which was in the senses dowels in the senses for long enough time to be cognized, yet its realty cannot be denied. Our conscious mind recognizes events and happening that last at least 1/10 of a second on the fastest cognitive sense of ours our eye, anything faster than that threshold simply slips our conscious cognitive mind the first time, and may be the second and the third time.

As enough time passes a chunk of the information would have been accumulated in our mind that the source and path seemed to be unknown. It seems it is these pieces of information that are happening at the speeds below and above the normal threshold of our senses cognitive power that we are awash with, which are by our senses and through our senses, in parallel with the empiricism refuted in this article, that are often relegated to the subconscious. Our subconscious mind’s life is more than likely a life of instantaneous happenings much faster than our conscious minds’ life. Our subconscious mind has to accumulate a number of instantaneous pieces of information before it manifests it as a conscious “objective “reality. The subconscious mind is material reality happening at speeds above and below the threshold of the senses cognitive ability. As sometimes referred to as the Sixth sense, that doesn’t see yet sees, that doesn’t hear yet hears, that doesn’t smell yet smells, that doesn’t taste yet tastes and that doesn’t feel yet feels in summation it is subconscious yet it is conscious and it is by the senses and through the senses, if it isn’t I am afraid there isn’t.

“The details of syntax have figured prominently in the history of psychology, because they are case where complexity in the mind is not caused by learning; learning is caused by complexity in the mind. That was real news.” In spite of the strong assertion that complexity of the mind preceded learning, I wondered what it would be like to have a complex mind that did not come about by learning and a learning that did not result in a complex mind. To me as a layman learning appeals to me as a process of untangling the naturally entangled, easing what is otherwise hard and difficult to understand, discovering the unknown and simplifying what is otherwise complex. But learning has never been the key to simplicity rather to more complexity. Simplifying complexity does not lead to simplicity but greater complexity of the mind. Thus complexity of the mind stayed somewhat ahead of learning and learning get locked up in a catch up game with its own effect on the mind, and that is why learning was, is, and will be a ceaseless open ended endeavor.



Source by Ayele Teklemariam

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