Oh, Steven Pinker. I do love you. It’s not just your easy going writing style, your lovely hair, or indeed your steadfast defence of the ever-evolving English language (although I am in two minds about BEV). It’s the way you get me to unwittingly learn about language and language history by easing me in with amusing anecdotes.
I loved you as soon as you told me about George Bernard Shaw’s alternative spelling of “fish”, which is “ghoti”. Brilliant.
Language is a weird and wonderful thing. Let’s face it: it is one of the major things that sets us apart from all other animals. No other animals can communicate so expressively. Yes, parrots can learn some human phrases, but they are merely (haha) parroting. Some experimental studies have been done to teach chimps, gorillas and bonobos signing, but it is crude at best – the sentence structure achieved was worse than basic, and subjects became very fixated on one or two topics. And, contrary to popular belief, they did NOT learn any ASL. They just pointed at stuff.
Pinker takes us on a wild, round-trip on the complexities of language development. Whilst some aspects are very dry (Pinker seems to adore lists and flow diagrams), this book is, in the most part, enjoyable, humorous and interesting. I did finish up with a slight sense of dissatisfaction (I can’t say the book told me anything groundbreaking) but I did have a good chuckle reading it. One mild frustration was Pinker’s tendency to mention a really interesting topic, and then move on, without really elucidating. For example, he briefly mention anomia. And then..? I would have appreciated more information about an inability to pin down nouns! I love neurological phenomena, and it was positively cruel of Pinker to wave them just out of my reach.
All that said, I have dogeared my copy with all my favourite passages. Most of them don’t actually teach much, but did raise a smirk. Especially the discussion of characteristic sound patterns of different languages, produced by selective phoneme inventories. Let’s face it: we’ve ALL done the piss take accent.