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Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (1999)

af Steven Pinker

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1,624197,842 (3.74)32
"In Words and Rules, Pinker explains the profound mysteries of language by picking a deceptively single phenomenon and examining it from every angle. The phenomenon - regular and irregular verbs - connects an astonishing array of topics in the sciences and humanities: the history of languages; the theories of Noam Chomsky and his critics; the attempts to simulate language using computer simulations of neural networks; the illuminating errors of children as they begin to speak; the nature of human concepts; the peculiarities of the English language; major ideas in the history of Western philosophy; the latest techniques in identifying genes and imaging the living brain."--BOOK JACKET.… (mere)

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Ego, thy name is Steven Pinker. That about sums up my thoughts on this book. I found his narrative to be dismissive of all other opinions but his own. He was condescending in his argument and his thesis could be summed up as "Once you agree with me, you will be correct."

On more specific issues, I think he saw languages as developing internally, i.e. more monolithic, and not being influenced as much by exterior forces. Later on in the book, he does discuss the impact of immigration and conquest, but he never goes back to reanalyze his original thoughts on the topic. His thoughts on systems and rules also bothers me a bit. He sees rules as the governing "meme", and thus his experiments look for these rules and he interprets the results to validate his thoughts, without convincing the reader, i.e. me.

Further, having been a computer scientist and anthropologist, I find his thoughts on neural networks to be trite and superficial. He dismisses them based on the simplest version of neural networks conceived in the late 80s/early 90s. Neural networks, the more advanced ones, basically are doing pattern recognition, regression and principal component analysis. If you accepted his reading of this technology, you'd dismiss it as alchemy and never look at it further.

I also found his work kind of aristocratic as well as Boomer-eqsue. His assumptions about cultural experiences definitely ties him to a privileged, white upbringing.

Overall, if he'd written a book that focused less on trying to inflate himself and dismiss others, he might have had more converts, or at least an engaged readership. Frankly, this style of writing is indicative of the academy and serves no purpose other than to elevate Mr. Pinker to his pedestal.
( )
  drew_asson | Dec 3, 2020 |
The edition I am currently reading has a hideous '90s purple and orange cover--so that's a downside.

I've found this to be the most philosophical of the linguistics books I've been hoarding lately . . . a good thing so far. Will update when I have the stamina to finish. Since it's not a novel, I've been reading chapters of this, going back and forth to later works . . . a quite enjoyable way to take it all in. The part on causation has blown my mind thus far. First chapter sort of boring.
  charlyk | Nov 15, 2019 |
An interesting history of language. Pinker generally writes in a very engaging way, if at times the technical details.obscure what he is trying to say., ( )
  INeilC | Sep 13, 2019 |
How does language work? How do children learn their mother tongue? Why do languages change over time, making Chaucer's English almost incomprehensible? Steven Pinker explains the profound mysteries of language by picking a deceptively simple single phenomenon and examining it from every angle. That phenomenon ' the existence of regular and irregular verbs ' connects an astonishing array of topics in the sciences and humanities: the history of languages; the illuminating errors of children as they begin to speak; the sources of the major themes in the history of Western philosophy; the latest techniques in identifying genes and imaging the living brain. Pinker makes sense of all of this with the help of a single, powerful idea: that language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of creative rules.
  MLJLibrary | May 1, 2018 |
I love this book.

This book was highly recommended by a friend after a discussion that touched on linguistics, and I don't think that one could ask for a better popular introduction to the field. Pinker is one of the great minds of our age, and he writes in a very engaging way about the basis of language. We live in a golden age of popular books for linguistics, with Pinker and John McWhorter writing several books (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, etc) in the field and great blogs like Language Log addressing both scholarly and popular items as well.

This book sparked my interest in the area and taught me so much about why we use language the way that we do. I was even able to explain to some of my Arab co-workers why they say some of the things that they do. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who has a curious mind. Even if you don't think that you could be interested in linguistics, after reading this, you very well might be. ( )
  briguybrn | Jan 14, 2018 |
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This book tries to illuminate the nature of language and mind by choosing a single phenomenon and examining it from every angle imaginable. (Preface)
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"In Words and Rules, Pinker explains the profound mysteries of language by picking a deceptively single phenomenon and examining it from every angle. The phenomenon - regular and irregular verbs - connects an astonishing array of topics in the sciences and humanities: the history of languages; the theories of Noam Chomsky and his critics; the attempts to simulate language using computer simulations of neural networks; the illuminating errors of children as they begin to speak; the nature of human concepts; the peculiarities of the English language; major ideas in the history of Western philosophy; the latest techniques in identifying genes and imaging the living brain."--BOOK JACKET.

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