April 6, 2024

Steven Pinker: Language is an instinct (1994)

by Mateusz Wiącek

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and linguist who has made significant contributions to the study of language and cognition. In 1995 in his book The Language Instinct, Pinker explored the idea that humans have an innate capacity for language, a so-called “language instinct”.

Pinker associates his idea of the language instinct with Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar theory, which proposes the existence of inherent grammatical structures and principles shared across all human languages. 

Where he differs from Chomsky is:

  • It is more accessible to a broader audience. While Chomsky’s work can be highly technical and theoretical, Pinker presents complex linguistic concepts in a more approachable manner for the masses.
  • It integrates evolution and explores the evolutionary roots of language and how it has shaped the human brain. Chomsky’s linguistic theories, while influential, are more focused on the abstract and formal properties of language.
  • It is truly interdisciplinary and draws on insights from cognitive science, psychology, and evolutionary biology to support his arguments. Chomsky’s work has also influenced various disciplines, but Pinker’s approach is explicitly interdisciplinary.

Just like the chameleon’s ability to camouflage itself or the falcon’s high-speed flight, the ability to produce and interpret complex language is an evolved human superpower.

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