Friday, September 28, 2007

"The Language Instinct" Stephen Pinker

This book is marred by several major weaknesses, some of them endemic to the genre, and some of them indicative of the wider problems in linguistics.

In popular science books, in order to make the science accessible and interesting to the lay reader, the rigour of the science must often be glossed over. It gives one the impression often that the point has been won by rhetoric, rather than logic or argument; a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand, with a well placed joke, or a well chosen example. Pinker is excellent at making the science accessible, but one wonders what caveats and controversies are being left out. The chapters on phonology, syntax, morphology and the evolution of language are very well done, with a potentially boring subject made interesting. There is also very good stuff on the brain, with descriptions of fascinating case studies of various different kinds of aphasias. While his overall thesis is absolutely correct -that language is an instinct (well, of course it is, duh)- the way Pinker goes about persuading us to accept his thesis, and the arguments he uses to do so are not as uncontroversial or as simplistic or as clear cut as he presents them. The book is subtitled: How the mind produces language. But the fact is, no one really knows how the mind produces language. We only have hypotheses which can be disproved or proved by various experiments, and both the hypotheses and experiments are hotly contested by those who have vested interests in creating and pursuing those controversies, i.e. academic linguists.

The major problem of the book is indicative of one of the main problems in linguistics.
In S/Z, Barthes outlines the notion of a cultural or reference code which he describes as: a type of knowledge, physical, physiological, medical, psychological, literary, historical etc. Meaning in a text is enriched by a more or less covert reference to this body of knowledge. While The Language Instinct is of course not a fictional work, the reference code in this book is psychology. Pinker describes himself as an evolutionary psychologist. I have no problem with the evolutionary part, but the psychology part is very doubtful indeed. We lost all hope of fully understanding consciousness when we switched our focus of enquiry from philosophy to psychology. The elevation of psychology over philosophy and literature as a vector for knowledge of the mind has taken linguistics down a blind alley. Now that Freud and the behaviourists have been comprehensively discredited, and neuro science has increased our understanding of the function of the brain, psychology has been largely reduced to designing bizarre and puerile experiments and reporting on their results. Pinker is a sucker for this, presenting the findings of psychological experiments as if they cast a sure light into the dark mysteries of the mind and how it produces language. However, what he doesn’t stress is that every study based on a research method can always be contradicted by another study based on a different research method.
For example, Pinker spends a lot of time debunking the Whorf Sapir Hypothesis. He cites a study by Bloom which appears to support Whorf. Bloom concludes through an experiment that because Chinese lacks a subjunctive mood, Chinese speakers are not able to hypothesize. Pinker then cites another study by Au, Tanako and Liu which appears to debunk Bloom’s study. In this second study, Bloom’s experiment was duplicated with small changes, and hey presto, the second study contradicted the first one: of course Chinese speakers are able to hypothesize! The second study proves it!
The problem with psychological experiments of this sort is that very often the researchers cannot see the wood for the trees.
Another irony of this is, of course, that all these studies do prove the Whorfian Hypothesis. Experiments can be designed in such a way as to prove or disprove any question. But the way the question is framed is determined by categories which are themselves determined and reflected by language. Any bilingual person, or a person who lives in another language environment, will have the experience that language determines thought, and that categories and ideas from one language cannot exactly be reproduced in another. One does not need to measure and tabulate every tree to know that one is in a forest.

The ‘evidence’ arrived at from experiments is never as clear cut as it seems. While researchers working in the hard sciences can arrive at conclusions by study of the evidence, researchers in the soft (or pseudo) sciences cannot because the nature of the evidence is simply not the same. The scientific method works for the natural sciences because natural sciences are based on observable, external phenomena: plants, animals, physical properties, atoms and the forces of the world out there. But language is not like this: it is not only an external phenomenon. It is a creation of the mind and of the community, and unlike the objective observable phenomena of the external world, it lives both inside us and outside us: it indeed constructs our minds and constructs our worlds. Language is of course a tool for communication, but prior to that it is a tool for thought.

Pinker makes no mention at all of corpus linguistics, which is the one area of evidence that is incontestable in linguistics. He makes a bizarre assertion several times, that every stretch of language is unique, put together on the spot, minted freshly anew each time out of rules that are the language instinct. Now, anyone working in corpus linguistics knows this is patently untrue. A simple KWIC search will show the existence of millions of prefabricated strings, from two word collocations to complete sentences, stored in the memory and produced on demand. The vast proportion of human speech is highly formulaic, clichéd and unoriginal. You know what I mean? That was the point of Flaubert’s whole project, to liberate language from the cliché. And if our language is clichéd and formulaic, what of our minds?

Another ludicrous assertion is that language is tool of precision: simply by making noises with our mouths we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds. If only! There would be an end to misunderstandings, an end to ambiguity, punning and humour if that were the case. By this assertion Pinker wipes out whole schools of current literary and linguistic theory: hermeneutics, reader-response theory, most of Wittgenstein’s work, Austin’s, Searle’s, Stanley Fish’s and Iser’s…. As Iris Murdoch most pithily puts it: Only very simple things can be said without falsehood.The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.

Pinker obviously has a great relish for language and includes lots of interesting and quirky examples. But somehow I get the feeling that he has missed the soul of language.
Many of the ‘discoveries’ of psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics are either borne out or contradicted by the great thinkers and writers of literature and philosophy, and for this reader at least, it is those writers who get closer to the mystery of how the mind produces language. Lilly Tomlin got closer to the truth than any psychological experiment can reveal when she says that language arose in the first place because of man’s deep felt need to complain.

No comments: