2002-09-28: The Language Instinct

The Language Instinct

How the Mind Creates Language (1994)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

Pinker’s primary object is to show that the ability to make language is a result of the evolution of human brain and related characteristics. His later work, How the Mind Works, follows with a broader theme in the same manner. A secondary object is to explain Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar in a way that can be understood by non-specialists. I found a lot of this book very interesting.

He describes phrase-structure grammar, which I have seen before, but then describes Chomsky’s more general view. Phase-structure grammar uses Noun Phrase, Verb Phrase, Prepositional Phrase, etc. to organize sentences. NP is built around a noun, VP around a verb, etc.; these are the heads of their particular types of phrase. Any specific grammar has rules for forming and combining such phrases. In English S -> NP VP is a simple rule, and VP -> V NP is another. A lot of mileage can be obtained from such simple rules, and analogous rules in other languages.

This is elaborated as two rules:

XP -> [SPEC] X-bar YP*
“A phrase consists of an optional subject [specifier?], followed by an X-bar, followed by any number of role-players.”

X-bar -> X ZP*
“An X-bar consists of a head word, followed by any number of role-players.”

In this formulation just plug in noun, verb, adjective, or preposition for X, Y, and Z.

This works for English, but some languages use the opposite word order. The more general form is X-bar -> {ZP*, X}, which allows either component to come first. This (it is claimed) covers practically every language (assuming appropriate features of the mental lexicon for specifying roles, etc.) This leaves one free parameter, for which each language must make a choice: whether role-players precede or follow head-words: head-first or head-last. Similarly, each language must choose whether the X-bar comes first or last. This is Chomsky’s “principles and parameters” theory. He hypothesizes that humans are born with the principles wired-in, and merely need to learn the parameters for their parents’ language.

I found this degree of generalization remarkable (so I’m remarking on it), whether the grander claims are true or not.

Pinker also gives a lot of information about the manner in which words are formed from morphemes and phonemes, and how rules govern the combinations at various levels of construction.

Pinker spends a chapter criticizing the “language mavens” who deplore usage that deviates from what they learned, at much cost. His criticisms seem apt and are often amusing. It’s particularly interesting that most mavens know very little of linguistics, and so can’t recognize a consistent (if non-standard) usage.

After convincing the reader that there is a language instinct, he raises the question: why should we care? He quotes Jerry Fodor:

“But look,” you might ask, “why do you care about [cognitive] modules so much? You’ve got tenure; why don’t you take off and go sailing? This is a perfectly reasonable question and one that often ask myself. . . . Roughly, the idea that cognition saturates perception belongs with (and is, indeed, historically connected with) the idea in the philosophy of science that one’s observations are comprehensively determined by one’s theories; with the idea in anthropology that one’s values are comprehensively determined by one’s culture; with the idea in sociology that one’s epistemic commitments, including especially one’s science, are comprehensively determined by one’s class affiliations; and with the idea in linguistics that one’s metaphysics is comprehensively determined by one’s syntax [i.e., the Whorfian hypothesis–SP]. All these ideas imply a kind of relativistic holism: because perception is saturated by cognition, observation by theory, values by culture, science by class, and metaphysics by language, rational criticism of scientific theories, ethical values, metaphysical world-views, or whatever can take place only within the framework of assumptions that – as a matter of geographical, historical, or sociological accident – the interlocutors happen to share. What you can’t do is rationally criticize the framework.

The thing is: I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than anything else, excepting, maybe, fiberglass powerboats. More to the point, I think that relativism is very probably false. What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. (This is not, of course, a novel insight; on the contrary, the malleability of human nature is a doctrine that relativists are invariably much inclined to stress; see, for example, John Dewey. . . .) Well, in cognitive psychology the claim that there is a fixed structure of human nature traditionally takes the form of an insistence on the heterogeneity of cognitive mechanisms and the rigidity of the cognitive architecture that affects their encapsulation. If there are faculties and modules, then not everything affects everything else; not everything is plastic.

Pinker goes on: “For Fodor, a sentence perception module that delivers the speaker’s message verbatim, undistorted by the listener’s biases and expectations, is emblematic of a universally structured human mind, the same in all places and times, that would allow people to agree on what is just and true as a matter of objective reality rather than of taste, custom, and self-interest. It is a bit of a stretch, but no one can deny that there is a connection. Modern intellectual life is suffused with a relativism that denies that there is such a thing as a universal human nature, and the existence of a language instinct in any form challenges that denial.”

Pinker goes on to disparage the “Standard Social Science Model (SSSM)” dating from the 1920s, “the fusion of an idea from anthropology and an idea from psychology:

Whereas animals are rigidly controlled by their biology, human behavior is determined by culture, an autonomous system of symbols and values. Free from biological constraints, cultures can vary from one another arbitrarily and without limit.

Human infants are born with nothing more than a few reflexes and an ability to learn. Learning is a general-purpose process, used in all domains of knowledge. Children learn their culture through indoctrination, reward and punishment, and role models.

He describes the alternative view, variously called the Integrated Causal Model or Evolutionary Psychology. He also describes some evidence to counter the SSSM. Inspired by Universal Grammar, Donald E. Brown has characterized Universal People:

Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humor. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses. Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioral propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at the very least “one,” “two,” and “more than two”), proper names, possession. Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories defined in terms of mother, father, son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including “not,” “and,” “same,” “equivalent,” “opposite,” general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent and invisible entities from their perceptible traces).

Nonlinguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behavior. Recognized facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expressions. Displays of affection.

Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behavior, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. “Oedipal” feelings (possessiveness of mother, coolness toward her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in part on signs of health and, in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting.

Manufacture of, and dependence on, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, levers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medicinal and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artifacts.

A standard pattern and time for weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built around a mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalized marriage, in the sense of publicly recognized of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialization of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favoring of close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons. Great interest in the topic of sex.

Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. More child care by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgement of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods, and services. Reciprocity, including retaliation. Gifts. Social reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always non-dictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape, and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.

Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreetness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites of passage. Mourning the dead. Dreaming, interpreting dreams.

As Pinker says, these are not biological or psychological instincts. They arise from the interactions between a universal human nature and the conditions of living in the physical, biological, and social realms, among others with the same nature. Pinker is setting the stage for his book about the myth of the blank slate theory of human nature.

Concerning learning: “Explicit pedagogy – learning by being told –is one kind of general-purpose learning, but most would agree it is the least important. Few people have been convinced by arguments like “No one ever teaches children how Universal Grammar works, but they respect it anyway; therefore it must be innate.” Most learning, everyone agrees, takes place outside of classroom lessons, by generalizing from examples. Children generalize from role models, or from their own behaviors that are rewarded or not rewarded. The power comes from the generalization according to similarity. … Similarity is thus the mainspring of a hypothetical general multipurpose learning device, and there is the rub.” He then goes on to describe some of the logical problems around the concept of similarity, and how “…it is in the mind of the beholder – just what we are trying to explain.” It is a problem of defining or discovering a “similarity space” relevant to the learning activity, and of refining the space with practice.

Concerning mental modules, he describes a way of looking for evidence, by testing the hypothesis that “when children solve problems for which they have mental modules, they should look like geniuses, knowing things they have not been taught; when they solve problems that their minds are not equipped for, it should be a long hard slog.” He then provides a list of possible mental modules. It is not clear to what extent there is evidence for these, but the list is interesting. It might be interesting to map it against the program of AI research. He says “(for justification, I refer you to a recent compendium called The Adapted Mind):

  • Intuitive mechanics: knowledge of the motions, forces, and deformations that objects undergo.
  • Intuitive biology: understanding of how plants and animals work.
  • Number.
  • Mental maps for large territories.
  • Habitat selection: seeking of safe, information-rich, productive environments, generally savannah-like.
  • Danger, including the emotions of fear and caution, phobias for stimuli such as heights, confinement, risky social encounters, and venomous and predatory animals, and a motive to learn the circumstances in which each is harmless.
  • Food: what is good to eat.
  • Contamination, including the emotion of disgust, reactions to certain things that seem inherently disgusting, and intuitions about contagion and disease.
  • Monitoring of current well-being, including the emotions of happiness and sadness, and moods of contentment and restlessness.
  • Intuitive psychology: predicting other people’s behavior from their beliefs and desires.
  • A mental Rolodex: a database of individuals, with blanks for kinship, status or rank, history of exchange of favors, and other inherent skills and strengths, plus criteria that valuate each trait.
  • Self-concept: gathering and organizing information about one’s value to other people, and packaging it for others.
  • Justice: sense of rights, obligations, and deserts, including the emotions of anger and revenge.
  • Kinship, including nepotism and allocating of parenting effort.
  • Mating, including feelings of sexual attraction, love, and intentions of fidelity and desertion.

To see how far standard psychology is from this conception, just turn to the table of contents of any textbook. The chapters will be: Physiological, Learning, Memory, Attention, Thinking, Decision-Making, Intelligence, Motivation, Emotion, Social, Development, Personality, Abnormal. I believe that with the exception of Perception and, of course, Language,  not a single curriculum unit in psychology corresponds to a cohesive chunk of the mind. Perhaps this explains the syllabus-shock experienced by Introductory Psychology students. It is like explaining how a car works by first discussing the steel parts, then the aluminum parts, then the red parts, and so on.”

Pinker goes on to defend the notions that there could be mental modules for such things as biology and psychology.

There is a lot of good stuff in this book, and a lot I haven’t mentioned here. I look forward to his more detailed explication of human nature, and how a belief that humans are built on an innate substrate does not imply the ethical evils commonly anticipated from such a belief.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email