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A Review of Pinker's Words and Rules

By Paul F. Wood M.A.

Pinker, Twain and the Entertaining Science of Linguistics

Some Reflections on Words & Rules:
the Ingredients of Language 
by Steven PinkerNote 1

If, on the one hand, we are exhorted not to judge a book by its cover, we are, on the other, told that the exception proves the rule. So, as we gaze at the front jacket, the question may justifiably be asked: why would one of the world's leading psycholinguists (Chomsky's heir apparent, no less) wish to send coals to Newcastle and give to this "sparkling, eye-opening and utterly original book"—or so the front inside flap would have us believe—the title he has? What, you may be thinking, is "utterly original" about the notion that language is based on words and rules?

One of the answers might be found on the back inside flap which provides, beneath the photo of a conscientiously informal Professor Pinker with his retro 1970s glam rock hair-do, the usual potted biography:

Steven Pinker, a native of Montreal, studied experimental psychology at McGill University and Harvard University. He is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neurosciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Pinker has studied many aspects of language and visual cognition, with a focus on language acquisition in children [...].

Note that there is no mention of Pinker having studied languages in the plural. Although he comes from one of the most high-profile bilingual places in the world, Quebec, and although he hints in The Language InstinctNote 2 that he grew up with some exposure to Yiddish, he neither draws on this personal background nor does he refer to real-world language studies in, say, the fields of translation, sociolinguistics and education. Look at any of the individual chapter bibliographies and you will see what I mean: the academic works he builds his case on are exclusively psycholinguistic. That singular use of "language" in the blurb, by the way, is another give-away. Psycho-linguisticians don't do languages; they study "many aspects of language".

Psycholinguistic theory tends to be based on Chomsky and all those perplexing little tree diagrams whilst the "practise" will focus on child acquisition oriented or laboratory fixated research. In other words, proud postgrad parents on a research programme at the MIT conduct diary studies on Junior acquiring English. Failing that, grown-ups are subjected to in-lab opinion surveys about the predictive rule generation of nonsense words such as greem, proke, brith, ploag, smeej and so-on-and-so-forth. You could argue, with a weary smile, that at least these kinds of tests keep psycholinguists off the streets. But of course it's out in the community that they should be—with the translators, the sociolinguists and the teachers—dealing with languages as they are and not as they might be. It's as though contributors to linguistics magazines were not able to speak foreign languages.

But back to the cover title and its arrogation of fact.Note 3 In fact, Pinker is reinventing the wheel.

"It's been 350 years since Leviathan and scholars are still debating rationalism and empiricism [and] the English past tense is the perfect site [for the debate]. The past tense is the only case I know with which the two great systems of Western thought may be tested and compared on a single rich set of data, just like ordinary scientific hypotheses" [p. 91].

Phew! Or, as Charles Yang says: "This book never runs short on hubris or hyperbole."Note 4

The "set of data" Pinker is referring to here is culled from children acquiring English as their native tongue (again, the world's other 5,999 languages are not comparatively called on hereNote 5). Generally, as we all know, they first get past forms such as "went" right, then move through a phase of overextension and say "go-ed" before achieving final command. This proves, says Pinker, that irregular verbs are learnt by memory and regular verbs by rule as in "walk+ed". That's the combinatory words-and-rules approach to language, the application of memorised lexemes and an innate rule. However, the connectionists and pattern associationists—whom Pinker rejects (more or less)—claim that language acquisition is more neurally network based and that children acquire verbs in English via repetition and the creation of links between lexical stems and past forms.

If, however, the lay reader is having difficulties in sorting out any epiphanic difference between the words-and-rules approach and the connectionist claim, well, so does Pinker. He cheerfully admits on p. 104, for instance, that "despite [his] clash-of the-Titans buildup, the pattern associator memory model shares some important design features with the Chomsky-Halle theory"—i.e. the precursor to his eponymous words-and-rules theory. Indeed, Pinker's award-winning teaching skills frequently interfere. He is so good, when he wants, at representing the other side of the argument that you sometimes forget whose side he's on, especially as all the perspectives involve memory anyway, and I had to reread several passages to realign myself to a new tack I had missed him taking. Since, in Pinker's preface, I counted forty names (without whom etc.) in the now standard fiesta of gratitude set out in forewords (all the mistakes are mine etc.), you would have thought that at least one of them might have pointed to the overlappingness of both exposition and theory.

Does it matter? Personally, I'm suspicious of either/or arguments. Does anyone doubt that the magic of young children acquiring their  native tongues is not an amalgam of some sort of language circuitry in the brain interacting with the environment as perceived through the five senses and memorised? Are these hair-splitting debates really necessary? I am reminded of a remark in another context by social historian John Ralston Saul: Their work required intelligence but it did not require thought.Note 6

Pinker and Twain

Just as Words & Rules is startrekkingly dedicated to the PSYMORGS—that's Pinker's psychology morphology group at the MIT profusely thanked in the preface—the book packs a whole number of cartoons and knowingly jokey references to American mass culture. True, there is an element of usage presentation here (if served up on a plate) but one cannot escape the impression that the ten chapters first started as lectures for MIT students. Read this:

In a language that builds words in stages, it isn't meaningful to say that a word is regular or irregular full stop; some parts of a word may be regular, others irregular ... [p. 214].

I rate that full stop semi-colon bit very highly. Think about it.Note 7

Nowhere is the lecture discourse and laboured wittiness more apparent than in the controversial Chapter 8 "The Horrors of the German Language", that title being a reference to Mark Twain's essay of the same nameNote 8 and you might think that a professor of cognitive neurosciences might wish to disassociate himself from such preconceptions. Let me quote Pinker's quoting Twain verbatim on p. 216:

A person [writes Twain] who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is. Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, "Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions." He runs his eye down and finds that
there are more exceptions to the rule than instances.Note 9

Perfect! [writes Pinker:]

Twain knew, of course, that "the awful German language" (as his title is usually translatedNote 10) is no more awful than any other language for the children who acquire it as a mother tongue. But many foreigners, he noted, "would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective." In standard High German, verbs have three forms: an infinitive, a preterite or simple past, and a participle: kaufen-kaufte-gekauft "to buy-bought-(has) bought." Mercifully, the simple past is seldom used in casual speech.

Apart from the fact that Pinker cannot resist repeating an out-of-place joke, that "decline two drinks" quip contradicts the impartiality of its preceding sentence. Equally exasperating are Pinker's ingratiation with his student audience (Perfect! Mercifully!) and his obvious belief that Mark Twain is an authority worth building a linguistic argument on. If he had bothered to read Twain's article in depth, he would have seen that Twain makes no secret of the fact that his crash course in German lasted only nine weeks. Still, that's probably nine weeks more than Pinker.

Mark Twain was a writer but what today we would also call a stand-up comedian. Before the age of mass media, he earned a living reading his essays "live" to audiences in America and was very entertaining. Interestingly enough, his sketch about the German language is not included in a recent "Best of" compilation.Note 11 His biographer in the Encyclopaedia Britannica makes the following wry remark ...

"Twain assumed the role of the keen-eyed shrewd Westerner who was refreshingly honest and vivid in describing foreign scenes and his reactions to them. It is probable that Americans liked the implication that a common man could judge the Old World as well as the next man".Note 12

Replace "scenes" with languages and, one century later, you have an apt description of Pinkerism and his mainly American brand of monolingual linguistics.

Pinker goes on in Chapter 8 to lose himself in a vain attempt to prove that the German noun plural system somehow backs up his words-and-rules theory. Here too he occasionally lands up on the wrong side of the track as he weaves between the "classic associationist trend of generalisation" and his own approach (pp. 226-227) which is partly the result of the non-diachronic platform he bases his arguments on—particularly in his inaccurate claim that "s" is the default plural in German. He desperately needs to study German philology or, better still, learn German.

Similarly, because he conducts his research by remote control, he misses an emerging plural category in Modern German: the zero-s-plural. Many foreign plurals ending in "s" lose it on being absorbed by German: das Billard, alle Eure E-mail, die Bereichsleiterin Key Account, der Overhead and die Sprayer. And what about drei Kre (or three shandies, short for drei Krefelder)? Just six examples I recently come across, all contradicting his theories. If only Pinker would come down from his ivory tower, he would find that languages do not respond as he says they should.

Instead, he makes strange remarks such as "If you have studied a foreign language, you know about irregularity all too well" [p. 214], into which I can read two implications: (i) he hasn't and (ii) he finds learning a foreign language difficult. Either way, it is not the job of a cognitive neurosciences professor teaching linguistics to make discouraging Twainese remarks.

Finally, apart from the horrors of psycholinguistics, what about the "horrors" of the English language? My Duden GrammatikNote 13 covers the subject of the plural in Sections 394 to 420 and in a few others under the heading of Deklination. Let us say 30 sections in all. In English, the Quirk/Greenbaum/Leech/Svartvik grammar Note 14 guides us from Section 4.48 to 4.86 and also branches out under other headings. Let us say 50 sections in all.

When I was a student of English and German in the 1970s, linguistics was an aid to that study. Nowadays, the gay science of linguistics is replacing the study of foreign languages. Knowledge management at its worst, all surface and no depth, linguistics à la Pinker has become a divertissement, an entertainment in it own right and, as such, takes away the real fun to be had learning a foreign language.

Spring 2001.

Paul Wood has worked as a translator in Germany for 20 years.


1 Weidenfeld & Nicholson: 1999. back to text

2 Penguin: 1994. back to text

3 Pinker's previous title was no less final: How the Mind Works. back to text

4 In: The London Review of Books [24 August 2000: p 33/1a]. Yang teaches linguistics at Yale. back to text

5 "Just think of the distorted picture we would have if only English were available for study!" exclaims Pinker on p260 of The Language Instinct. Yet that's how the MIT's language department appears to work. back to text

6 In: The Unconscious Civilisation [Penguin: 1997 p178]. back to text

7 Most Americans use "period" instead of "full stop." back to text

8 Pinker cites Twain M. 1889/1979: "The Awful German Language" in The Unabridged Mark Twain [Philadelphia: Running Press]. back to text

9 Pinker's emphasis. back to text

10 Not true. My version is entitled the "The Horrors ..." in Your Personal Mark Twain [Seven Seas 1961: pp 94-115].back to text

11 Mark Twain: Cannibalism In The Cars: the Best of Twain's Humorous Sketches [Prion 2000]. back to text

12 EB Micropaedia [1993: Vol. 12 p77b]. back to text

13 Duden Band 4 [Mannheim: 1973]. back to text

14 A Grammar of Contemporary English [Longman: 1979]. back to text



This review is Copyright © 2001
by Paul F. Wood. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.

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