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Book review of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Catrina Mueller's picture

I have always been interested in language. When I was small, I discovered my love of etymology through vocabulary tests. I realized that I remembered words much more easily if I knew how these words were “built”, so to speak. For instance, the word “decimate” was much easier to memorize when I knew that it basically meant “to kill one in ten” in Latin. Eventually, my love for language grew; so much, that I am probably going to major in one, if not two foreign languages here at Bryn Mawr. So it was very fortunate for me when Professor Grobstein recommended that I read this book. It made me really think about what language truly means to society.

Right from the start, one quote jumped out at me. Pinker states that “a solitary human is an impressive problem-solver and engineer. But a race of Robinson Crusoes would not give an extraterrestrial observer all that much to remark on.” (pg 2) This statement really hit home for me because it reminded me of the debate about whether humans are “special” or not that we had before Fall Break. When we had this discussion, my side debated that “No, humans are no special. Every species is unique, so thus ‘special’ is normal”. But something really bothered me about my side’s opinion. Where did human consciousness play into this debate? The “specialness” that we were arguing about was just degrees of a certain characteristic being displayed more in some species than others. We, however, could not find any animals that acted based on consciousness, other than humans. In fact, the “yes, humans are special” group hypothesized that humans are the only beings that create things purely for an aesthetic value and not in order to survive. But when I started reading this book, I realized that this characteristic was not the only thing that was “special” to humans.

I was surprised when I examined this book to read Pinker declaring that humans’ complex language system also sets us apart from other organisms. He asserts that our ability to communicate is so important that “[l]anguage is so tightly woven into human experience that it is scarcely possible to imagine life without it.” (pg 3) He continues saying that language is such an integral part of life that it has become a basic instinct of humans.

This idea basically blew my mind. I had never really pondered exactly how important language is to humans. Pinker states that “[a]phasia, the loss of language following brain injury, is [so] devastating” that “…in severe cases family members may feel that the whole person is lost forever.” (pg 3) I began trying to imagine life without language and failed miserably. The closest that I could come was an experience that I had in high school. I was in a psych class during my 11th grade when I had an experiment assigned to me that made me have to take on a “disability” for a day. Being a fairly quiet person, I decided that being mute would be quite easy for me, since I was allowed to write down what I wanted to say as long as no noise was uttered from my mouth. That assignment turned out to be much harder than I originally thought. Trying to say anything took twice as long, since I do not know sign language and had to either pantomime what I wanted to say or write it down. I could not contribute correctly in class, as it was impossible to convey any type of message within a reasonable amount of time to my teachers.

Upon remembering my failure of conveying any type of complex messages to anyone while I was “mute”, I was reminded of another idea from The Language Instinct: “A common language connects the members of a community into an information-sharing network with formidable collective powers.” (pgs 2-3) Without language, we would not be able to convey news to each other. Without language, we would not be able to tell others “who in fact did what to whom”. (pg 74)

So what would happen to science if there was no language? How would scientists share their discoveries of the “apparent magic trick[s] in nature, like bats homing in on insects in pitch blackness or salmon returning to breed in their natal stream” without the use of language? They wouldn’t! In fact, without the use of language, all story telling would be impossible! Without language, we would not be able to explore the improbabilities of organisms. We would not know that the sun does not “rise”. We could not communicate any ideas to each other. Society as we know it would break down without language.

I finally began to understand the importance of storytelling. Even if stories are not always true, they are a link between humans. Stories can convey the opinions and research of others so that we are more easily relate to each other. Stories can evoke emotion, relay information, but most important, they set humanity apart from all other organisms. Without stories and language, a human would be nothing but a miserable little pile of secrets, unable to share his thoughts with society.


All quotations taken from The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Story telling: fully dependent on language?

Very interesting question. Language certainly facilitates story telling but my hunch is that story telling can/does in fact occur without it (see /sci_cult/evolit/s05/storyevolplus/ and a "narrative/non-narrative" distinction). An issue very much worth some further exploration ...