March 5, 2017

Review Corner

To be sure, 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. What is truly arresting about our kind is better captured in the story of the Tower of Babel, in which humanity, speaking a single language, came so close to reaching heaven that God himself felt threatened.
I've become a huge fan of Steven Pinker. Yes, that's as controversial as thinking Derek Jeter is not too bad a ballplayer. But you know my disaffinity for pointy head professors; it took me a while. He got a glowing Review Corner for his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He is brilliant and charming in his episode of Conversations with Tyler. Smarterest guy on the planet? I'll offer no counterexample.

Becoming a fanboy, I had to dig into the Professor's magnum opus: The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language (P.S.). It is an incredible piece of work.


The second trick behind the language instinct is captured in a phrase from Wilhelm Von Humboldt that presaged Chomsky: language "makes infinite use of finite media . " We know the difference between the forgettable Dog bites man and the newsworthy Man bites dog because of the order in which dog, man, and bites are combined.

This is a book of psychology, genetics and structure. Not only is it not about Who vs. Whom, Professor Pinker suggests dispensing with the distinction. He is more interested in universal grammar -- and suggests it comes to us via evolution and not through PlaySchool® "Babies first non-split-infinitive CDs."
In contemporary middle-class American culture, parenting is seen as an awesome responsibility, an unforgiving vigil to keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life. The belief that Motherese is essential to language development is part of the same mentality that sends yuppies to "learning centers" to buy little mittens with bull's-eyes to help their babies find their hands sooner.

The three-year old English speaker, Pinker points out, has an astonishing grasp of language and grammar. Show him an animal and tell him it is a "Wug." Then show him two, and he'll construct "two Wugs." Not that he is a huge fan of three-year-olds "(if children are general imitators, why donít they imitate their parentsí habit of sitting quietly in airplanes?)" The same child will think that a glass of milk poured into a narrower glass suddenly has more because of the vertical level.

We are clearly given some innate language skills. Pinker extends them far beyond plurals. and shows them universal among different languages.

Grammar is a protocol that has to interconnect the ear, the mouth, and the mind, three very different kinds of machine. It cannot be tailored to any of them but must have an abstract logic of its own.

It's a scholarly work and contains some technical sections, but nothing inaccessible (contra another popular brilliant linguist whose name rhymes with Foam Mom's Ski). It's challenging for its depth, but Pinker is a clear, accessible -- and frequently amusing -- writer.
In the 1964 hit song "The Name Game " ("Noam Noam Bo - Boam , Bonana Fana Fo - Foam , Fee Fi Mo Moam , Noam"), Shirley Ellis could have saved several lines in the stanza explaining the rules if she had simply referred to onsets and rimes .

The publication date is 1994 and it is difficult to rate his prognostication skills concerning computers and language. He is rightfully pessimistic (remember your computer in 1995?) because the idea of teaching language and grammar to computers is perhaps insuperable. I participated in a start-up in the early 'oughts which tried to commercialize the then-best Natural Language Processing as part of a rudimentary AI suite. Twelve years after Pinker's book, it was far from solved.

Of course, our computers talk to us all the time. But they use big data and statistical analysis. Siri doesn't understand grammar, but she knows how three million people constructed a phrase. Pinker might lose a friendly wager to a time-traveler over Siri, but the method confirms his hypothesis rather than contradicting it.

Pedants will wince in places. He does claim that those (cough, cough) inclined to separate Who and Whom are hypocrites for not continuing the equivalent Ye and You. Grammatical rules emanating from schoolmarms and disapproving uncles instead of evolution tend not to convey additional information. The erudite syntax of a William F. Buckley, Jr. question on Firing Line claims no superiority over street slang.

The best definition comes from the linguist Max Weinreich: a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

I'm not sure to whom he is referring, but I'll move on, having barely scratched the surface of a 572 page book by a polymath, intersecting language, genetics, psychology, art, physics and technology. I'll close with an anecdote that pleased me greatly.

He pretty effectively calls "Bullshit" (without being reduced to barnyard vulgarity) on the people who teach sign language to gorillas or "Don't believe everything you see on The Tonight Show." The studies are suspect, the data is not made available -- the better part of a chapter discredits these circus tricks. The students cataloging "speech" have every incentive to call scratching an itch speech. Actual deaf students brought in noted only ten percent as many words as the other students. But guess which results were published?

Recall that typical sentences from a two-year-old child are:
Look at that train Ursula brought and We going turn light on so you canít see.

Typical sentences from a language - trained chimp are:
Nim eat Nim eat . Drink eat me Nim . Me gum me gum . Tickle me Nim play . Me eat me eat . Me banana you banana me you give . You me banana me banana you . Banana me me me eat . Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you .

I used the barnyard vulgarity because the section reminded me of an episode of Penn & Teller's show by the same name. They played an audio tape of a woman teaching a dolphin to speak. To help their viewers, when the woman said "One, two, three, four, five, six" they circled her name, Margaret Howe, on-screen. When the dolphin said "Ki, ki, ki ki, ack ack kikikikikikik eeey!" they circled "dolphin."

Pinker doesn't hate gorillas any more than he loves two year olds. It reinforces his point that we have an evolutionary, instinctive capacity for language. We don't rate people on their ability to pull trees out of the ground with their elephantine trunks; it makes no more sense to rate gorillas on grammar skills.

A great and serious book, well worth your time Five stars.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at March 5, 2017 11:57 AM
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