The Language Instinct - theories of Pinker and Chomsky

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Language: A Divergence of Instinct and Knowing

Including an Analysis of Chapters 1-4

Rishi Seshadri



Word Count: 1167

        Pinker outlines his argument: “Language 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.” He claims cognitive scientists describe it as psychological faculty, mental organ, neural system, and a computational mode, he prefers the term “instinct.” Pinker’s two main arguments are the infinite variety of sentence combinations and utterings and the lack of formalized instruction in very young children. He supports Chomsky’s view that language is an evolutionary adaptation.

        In the third chapter, Pinker dissects the issue of linguistic determinism and criticizes the work of Whorf and his language studies. He suggests that one cannot use language to think because its ambiguous, it lacks logical explicitness, co-referencing issues muddle it, and the use of deictic terms. “Indeed if babies did not have mentalese to translate to and from English, it is not clear how learning English could take place, or even what learning English would mean.”

        In the section titled "How Language Works," Pinker discusses how language is a “discrete combinatory system” which incorporates a blending system using a mental dictionary and mental grammar. To support his claim he cites “the sheer vastness of the language,” the infinite number of sentences we are able to produce, and the infinite use of finite media. After a brief discussion of ungrammaticality, he trashes the Markov model or the word chain device for language acquisition. A word chain device is a multitude of lists or prefabricated phrases and a set of directions for going from list to list. Pinker uses the phrase structure rules and diagrams to support his claim. He demonstrates how limiting the traditional grammatical categories are; he even describes verbs as little despots. Pinker also offers that “grammar offers a clear refutation of the empiricist doctrine that there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.” He concludes with “grammar is a protocol that has to interconnect the ear, mouth, and the mind, three very different kinds of machines. It cannot be tailored to any of them but must have an abstract logic of its own.”

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        Thoughts have to be communicable to count as thoughts. After all, what sort of thoughts could not be expressed in language or behavior? Are they thoughts at all? How are they distinguished from emotions that cannot be expressed, or demonic possessions that cannot be expressed? This is exactly the point that underlies the Turing test: the sophistication of someone's thoughts is defined by what they can, under the fairest conditions, communicate. We can imagine a thought that is not communicated, or that is not expressed in language, but ...

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