The Language Instinct

"The Language Instinct" is a book by Steven Pinker, published in 1994. In it, Pinker argues that humans are born with an innate capacity for language. In addition, he deals sympathetically with Noam Chomsky's claim that all human language shows evidence of a universal grammar. In the final chapter Pinker dissents from the skepticism shown by Chomsky that evolution by natural selection is up to par with the challenge of explaining a human language instinct.


Pinker sets out to disabuse the reader of a number of common ideas about language, e.g. that children must be taught to use it, that most people's grammar is poor, that the quality of language is steadily declining, that language has a heavy influence on a person's possible range of thoughts (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), and that nonhuman animals have been taught language (see Great Ape language). Each of these claims, he argues, is false. Instead, Pinker sees language as an ability unique to humans, produced by evolution to solve the specific problem of communication among social hunter-gatherers. He compares language to other species' specialized adaptations such as spiders' web-weaving or beavers' dam-building behavior, calling all three "instincts."

By calling language an instinct, Pinker means that it is not a human invention in the sense that metalworking and even writing are. While only some human cultures possess these technologies, all cultures possess language itself. As further evidence for the universality of language, Pinker notes that children spontaneously invent a consistent grammatical speech (a creole) even if they grow up among a mixed-culture population speaking an informal trade pidgin with no consistent rules. Deaf babies "babble" with their hands as others normally do with voice, and spontaneously invent sign languages with true grammar rather than a crude "me Tarzan, you Jane" pointing system. Language (speech) also develops in the absence of formal instruction or active attempts by parents to correct children's grammar. These signs suggest that rather than being a human invention, language is an innate human ability. Pinker also distinguishes language from humans' general reasoning ability, emphasizing that it is not simply a mark of advanced intelligence but rather a specialized "mental module". He distinguishes the linguist's notion of grammar, such as the placement of adjectives, from formal rules such as those in the American English writing style guide, "The Elements of Style", saying that the latter are neither instinctive nor useful and exist mainly to sell style books. He argues that because rules like "a preposition is not a proper word to end a sentence with" must be explicitly taught, they are irrelevant to actual communication and should be ignored.

Pinker attempts to trace the outlines of the language instinct by citing his own studies of language acquisition in children, and the works of many other linguists and psychologists in multiple fields, as well as numerous examples from popular culture. He notes, for instance, that specific types of brain damage cause specific impairments of language such as Broca's aphasia or Wernicke's aphasia, that specific types of grammatical construction are especially hard to understand, and that there seems to be a critical period in childhood for language development just as there is a critical period for vision development in cats. Much of the book refers to Chomsky's concept of a universal grammar, a meta-grammar into which all human languages fit. Pinker explains that a universal grammar represents specific structures in the human brain that recognize the general rules of other humans' speech, such as whether the local language places adjectives before or after nouns, and begin a specialized and very rapid learning process not explainable as reasoning from first principles or pure logic. This learning machinery exists only during a specific critical period of childhood and is then disassembled for thrift, freeing resources in an energy-hungry brain.


The implications of the language-instinct hypothesis are far-reaching. Language and similar abilities are some of the traits that most clearly set humans apart from other animals, and have been claimed by thinkers such as Alfred Russel Wallace and Samuel Taylor Coleridge [] as the work of God. If language and other mental abilities are in fact explainable as products of evolution, as Pinker argues, then appeal to a "deus ex machina" is not necessary to describe why these abilities exist.

Pinker challenges the fields of astrobiology and artificial intelligence as well. If language is a specialized ability evolved by humans' ancestors to aid survival in a particular environment, then a search for human-like intelligence elsewhere in the universe (e.g. SETI) is as futile as it would be for elephants to conduct a Search for Extra-Terrestrial Trunks and consider all non-trunk-using species inferior. Pinker cites the Loebner Prize contest in artificial intelligence as evidence that the field is still far from achieving meaningful conversational ability or even plausible parsing of ordinary typed English. (Contest entrants claim that their chatterbot approach to conversation is steadily advancing and achieving practical results.)

Pinker's arguments mesh with his other books, "How the Mind Works" (a discussion of a wide range of mental abilities as specialized evolution-built modules) and "The Blank Slate" (a denial that humans are shaped purely by culture rather than instinct). His claims are also similar to those of Edward O. Wilson (""), Richard Dawkins ("The Selfish Gene"), Douglas Hofstadter ("Gödel, Escher, Bach") and Richard Brodie ("Virus of the Mind"). Each of these thinkers argue for sociobiology, the concept that human behavior and thought are best explained in terms of evolution of genes and memes. Collectively, these attempts to apply evolutionary theory to psychology are known simply as evolutionary psychology. Because sociobiology/evolutionary psychology challenges traditional notions of the nature of thought, morality and emotion, the field remains controversial.


As innateness is a disputed topic in the linguistic community, it is not surprising that a number of scholars have disagreed with large parts of Pinker's reasoning. In particular, his assumptions about the innateness of language have been challenged; opponents claim that "either the logic is fallacious, or the factual data are incorrect (or, sometimes, both)". [] A book by Geoffrey Sampson, "The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate", has been dedicated mostly to the critique of Pinker's work.

External links

* [ Pinker's website on "The Language Instinct"]
* A [ review] (PDF document) by Randy Harris for The Globe and Mail.
* [ Sampson's website on "The ‘Language Instinct’ Debate"]

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