Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

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from: Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Harper, 1995. (pp 25-54)


By the 1920s it was thought that no corner of the earth fit

for human habitation had remained unexplored. New Guinea, the
world's second largest island, was no exception. The European mis-
sionaries, planters, and administrators clung to its coastal lowlands,
convinced that no one could live in the treacherous mountain range
that ran in a solid line down the middle of the island. But the moun-
tains visible from each coast in fact belonged to two ranges, not one,
and between them was a temperate plateau crossed by many fertile
valleys. A million Stone Age people lived in those highlands, isolated
from the rest of the world for forty thousand years. The veil would
not be lifted until gold was discovered in a tributary of one of the main
rivers. The ensuing gold rush attracted Michael Leahy, a footloose
Australian prospector, who on May 26, 1930, set out to explore the
mountains with a fellow prospector and a group of indigenous low-
land people hired as carriers. After scaling the heights, Leahy was
amazed to see grassy open country on the other side. By nightfall his
amazement turned to alarm, because there were points of light in the
distance, obvious signs that the valley was populated. After a sleepless
night in which Leahy and his party loaded their weapons and assem-
bled a crude bomb, they made their first contact with the highlanders.
The astonishment was mutual. Leahy wrote in his diary:
It was a relief when the [natives] came in sight, the men ... in front,
armed with bows and arrows, the women behind bringing stalks of
sugarcane. When he saw the women, Ewunga told me at once that
there would be no fight. We waved to them to come on, which they
did cautiously, stopping every few yards to look us over. When a
few of them finally got up courage to approach, we could see that
they were utterly thunderstruck by our appearance. When I took
off my hat, those nearest to me backed away in terror. One old
chap came forward gingerly with open mouth, and touched me to
see if I was real. Then he knelt down, and rubbed his hands over
my bare legs, possibly to find if they were painted, and grabbed me
.around the knees and hugged them, rubbing his bushy head against
me. The women and children gradually got up courage to ap-
proach also, and presently the camp was swarming with the lot of
them, all running about and jabbering at once, pointing to ...
everything that was new to them.
That "jabbering" was language—an unfamiliar language, one of
eight hundred different ones that would be discovered among the
isolated highlanders right up through the 1960s. Leahy's first contact
repeated a scene that must have taken place hundreds of times in
human history, whenever one people first encountered another. AH
of them, as far as we know, already had language. Every Hottentot,
every Eskimo, every Yanomamo. No mute tribe has ever been discov-
ered, and there is no record that a region has served as a "cradle" of
language from which it spread to previously languageless groups.

As in every other case, the language spoken by Leahy's hosts turned

out to be no mere jabber but a medium that could express abstract
concepts, invisible entities, and complex trains of reasoning. The
highlanders conferred intensively, trying to agree upon the nature of
the pallid apparitions. The leading conjecture was that they were
reincarnated ancestors or other spirits in human form, perhaps ones
that turned back into skeletons at night. They agreed upon an empiri-
cal test that would settle the matter. "One of the people hid," recalls
the highlander Kirupano Eza'e, "and watched them going to excrete.
He came back and said, 'Those men from heaven went to excrete
over there.' Once they had left many men went to take a look. When
they saw that it smelt bad, they said, 'Their skin might be different,
but their shit smells bad like ours.' "

The universality of complex language is a discovery that fills lin-

guists with awe, and is the first reason to suspect that language is not
just any cultural invention but the product of a special human instinct.
Chatterboxes 27
Cultural inventions vary widely in their sophistication from society to
society; within a society, the inventions are generally at the same level
of sophistication. Some groups count by carving notches on bones
and cook on fires ignited by spinning sticks in logs; others use comput-
ers and microwave ovens. Language, however, ruins this correlation.
There are Stone Age societies, but there is no such thing as a Stone
Age language. Earlier in this century the anthropological linguist
Edward Sapir wrote, "When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks
with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting
savage of Assam."

To pick an example at random of a sophisticated linguistic form

in a nonindustrialized people, the linguist Joan Bresnan recently wrote
a technical article comparing a construction in Kivunjo, a Bantu
language spoken in several villages on the slopes of Mount Kiliman-
jaro in Tanzania, with its counterpart construction in English, which
she describes as "a West Germanic language spoken in England and
its former colonies." The English construction is called the dative*
and is found in sentences like She baked me a brownie and He prom-
ised her Arpege,
where an indirect object like me or her is placed after
the verb to indicate the beneficiary of an act. The corresponding
Kivunjo construction is called the applicative, whose resemblance to
the English dative, Bresnan notes, "can be likened to that of the game
of chess to checkers." The Kivunjo construction fits entirely inside
the verb, which has seven prefixes and suffixes, two moods, and
fourteen tenses; the verb agrees with its subject, its object, and its
benefactive nouns, each of which comes in sixteen genders. (In case
you are wondering, these "genders" do not pertain to things like
cross-dressers, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, androgynous people,
and so on, as one reader of this chapter surmised. To a linguist, the
term gender retains its original meaning of "kind," as in the related
words generic, genus, and genre. The Bantu "genders" refer to kinds
like humans, animals, extended objects, clusters of objects, and body
parts. It just happens that in many European languages the genders
correspond to the sexes, at least in pronouns. For this reason the
linguistic term gender has been pressed into service by nonlinguists
*A11 the technical terms from linguistics, biology, and cognitive science that I use in
this book are defined in the Glossary on pages 473-483.
as a convenient label for sexual dimorphism; the more accurate term
sex seems now to be reserved as the polite way to refer to copulation.)
Among the other clever gadgets I have glimpsed in the grammars of
so-called primitive groups, the complex Cherokee pronoun system
seems especially handy. It distinguishes among "you and I," "another
person and I," "several other people and I," and "you, one or more
other persons, and I," which English crudely collapses into the all-
purpose pronoun we.

Actually, the people whose linguistic abilities are most badly under-

estimated are right here in our society. Linguists repeatedly run up
against the myth that working-class people and the less educated
members of the middle class speak a simpler or coarser language. This
is a pernicious illusion arising from the effortlessness of conversation.
Ordinary speech, like color vision or walking, is a paradigm of engi-
neering excellence—a technology that works so well that the user
takes its outcome for granted, unaware of the complicated machinery
hidden behind the panels. Behind such "simple" sentences as Where
did he go?
and or The guy I met killed himself, used automatically by
any English speaker, are dozens of subroutines that arrange the words
to express the meaning. Despite decades of effort, no artificially engi-
neered language system comes close to duplicating the person in the
street, HAL and C3PO notwithstanding.

But though the language engine is invisible to the human user, the

trim packages and color schemes are attended to obsessively. Trifling
differences between the dialect of the mainstream and the dialect of
other groups, like isn't any versus ain't no, those books versus them
and dragged him away versus drug him away, are dignified as
badges of "proper grammar." But they have no more to do with
grammatical sophistication than the fact that people in some regions
of the United States refer to a certain insect as a dragonfly and people
in other regions refer to it as a darning needle, or that English speakers
call canines dogs whereas French speakers call them chiens. It is even
a bit misleading to call Standard English a "language" and these
variations "dialects," as if there were some meaningful difference
between them. The best definition comes from the linguist Max Wein-
reich: a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

The myth that nonstandard dialects of English are grammatically

deficient is widespread. In the 1960s some well-meaning educational
psychologists announced that American black children had been so
Chatterboxes 29
culturally deprived that they lacked true language and were confined
instead to a "non-logical mode of expressive behavior." The conclu-
sions were based on the students' shy or sullen reactions to batteries
of standardized tests. If the psychologists had listened to spontaneous
conversations, they would have rediscovered the commonplace fact
that American black culture is everywhere highly verbal; the subcul-
ture of street youths in particular is famous in the annals of anthropol-
ogy for the value placed on linguistic virtuosity. Here is an example,
from an interview conducted by the linguist William Labov on a
stoop in Harlem. The interviewee is Larry, the roughest member of
a teenage gang called the Jets. (Labov observes in his scholarly article
that "for most readers of this paper, first contact with Larry would
produce some fairly negative reactions on both sides.")
You know, like some people say if you're good an' shit, your spirit
goin' t'heaven ... 'n' if you bad, your spirit goin' to hell. Well,
bullshit! Your spirit goin' to hell anyway, good or bad.


Why? I'll tell you why. 'Cause, you see, doesn' nobody really know
that it's a God, y'know, 'cause I mean I have seen black gods, white
gods, all color gods, and don't nobody know it's really a God. An'
when they be sayin' if you good, you goin' t'heaven, tha's bullshit,
'cause you ain't goin' to no heaven, 'cause it ain't no heaven for you
to go to.

[. .. jus' suppose that there is a God, would he be white or black?]

He'd be white, man.

Why? I'll tell you why. 'Cause the average whitey out here got

everything, you dig? And the nigger ain't got shit, y'know? Y'under-
stan'? So—urn—for—in order for that to happen, you know it ain't
no black God that's doin' that bullshit.
First contact with Larry's grammar may produce negative reactions
as well, but to a linguist it punctiliously conforms to the rules of the
dialect called Black English Vernacular (BEV). The most linguistically
interesting thing about the dialect is how linguistically uninteresting
it is: if Labov did not have to call attention to it to debunk the claim
that ghetto children lack true linguistic competence, it would have
been filed away as just another language. Where Standard American
English (SAE) uses there as a meaningless dummy subject for the
copula, BEV uses it as a meaningless dummy subject for the copula
(compare SAE's There's really a God with Larry's It's really a God).
Larry's negative concord (You ain't goin' to no heaven} is seen in
many languages, such as French (ne . . . pas). Like speakers of SAE,
Larry inverts subjects and auxiliaries in nondeclarative sentences, but
the exact set of the sentence types allowing inversion differs slightly.
Larry and other BEV speakers invert subjects and auxiliaries in nega-
tive main clauses like Don't nobody know; SAE speakers invert them
only in questions like Doesn't anybody know? and a few other sentence
types. BEV allows its speakers the option of deleting copulas (I/you
this is not random laziness but a systematic rule that is virtually
identical to the contraction rule in SAE that reduces He is to He's,
You are to You're,
and I am to I'm. In both dialects, be can erode
only in certain kinds of sentences. No SAE speaker would try the
following contractions:
Yes he is! Yes he's!
I don't care what you are. I don't care what you’re.
Who is it? Who's it?
For the same reasons, no BEV speaker would try the following dele-
Yes he is! Yes he!
I don't care what you are. I don't care what you.
Who is it? Who it?
Note, too, that BEV speakers are not just more prone to eroding
words. BEV speakers use the full forms of certain auxiliaries (/ have
whereas SAE speakers usually contract them (I've seen}. And
as we would expect from comparisons between languages, there are
areas in which BEV is more precise than standard English. He be
means that he generally works, perhaps that he has a regular
job; He working means only that he is working at the moment that
the sentence is uttered. In SAE, He is working fails to make that
distinction. Moreover, sentences like In order/or that to happen, you
Chatterboxes 31
know it ain't no black God that's doin' that bullshit show that Larry's
speech uses the full inventory of grammatical paraphernalia that com-
puter scientists struggle unsuccessfully to duplicate (relative clauses,
complement structures, clause subordination, and so on), not to men-
tion some fairly sophisticated theological argumentation.

Another project of Labov's involved tabulating the percentage of

grammatical sentences in tape recordings of speech in a variety of
social classes and social settings. "Grammatical," for these purposes,
means "well-formed according to consistent rules in the dialect of the
speakers." For example, if a speaker asked the question Where are
you going?,
the respondent would not be penalized for answering To
the store,
even though it is in some sense not a complete sentence.
Such ellipses are obviously part of the grammar of conversational
English; the alternative, I am going to the store, sounds stilted and is
almost never used. "Ungrammatical" sentences, by this definition,
include randomly broken-off sentence fragments, tongue-tied hem-
ming and hawing, slips of the tongue, and other forms of word salad.
The results of Labov's tabulation are enlightening. The great majority
of sentences were grammatical, especially in casual speech, with
higher percentages of grammatical sentences in working-class speech
than in middle-class speech. The highest percentage of ungrammatical
sentences was found in the proceedings of learned academic conferences.

The ubiquity of complex language among human beings is a grip-

ping discovery and, for many observers, compelling proof that lan-
guage is innate. But to tough-minded skeptics like the philosopher
Hilary Putnam, it is no proof at all. Not everything that is universal
is innate. Just as travelers in previous decades never encountered a
tribe without a language, nowadays anthropologists have trouble
finding a people beyond the reach of VCR's, Coca-Cola, and Bart
Simpson T-shirts. Language was universal before Coca-Cola was, but
then, language is more useful than Coca-Cola. It is more like eating
with one's hands rather than one's feet, which is also universal, but
we need not invoke a special hand-to-mouth instinct to explain why.
Language is invaluable for all the activities of daily living in a commu-
nity of people: preparing food and shelter, loving, arguing, negotiat-
ing, teaching. Necessity being the mother of invention, language could
have been invented by resourceful people a number of times long
ago. (Perhaps, as Lily Tomlin said, man invented language to satisfy
his deep need to complain.) Universal grammar would simply reflect
the universal exigencies of human experience and the universal limita-
tions on human information processing. All languages have words for
"water" and "foot" because all people need to refer to water and
feet; no language has a word a million syllables long because no
person would have time to say it. Once invented, language would
entrench itself within a culture as parents taught their children and
children imitated their parents. From cultures that had language, it
would spread like wildfire to other, quieter cultures. At the heart of this process is wondrously flexible human intelligence, with its general
multipurpose learning strategies.

So the universality of language does not lead to an innate language

instinct as night follows day. To convince you that there is a language
instinct, I will have to fill in an argument that leads from the jabbering
of modern peoples to the putative genes for grammar. The crucial
intervening steps come from my own professional specialty, the study
of language development in children. The crux of the argument is
that complex language is universal because children actually reinvent
generation after generation—not because they are taught, not
because they are generally smart, not because it is useful to them, but

because they just can't help it. Let me now take you down this trail of evidence.

The trail begins with the study of how the particular languages we
find in the world today arose. Here, one would think, linguistics runs
into the problem of any historical science: no one recorded the crucial
events at the time they happened. Although historical linguists can
trace modern complex languages back to earlier ones, this just pushes
the problem back a step; we need to see how people create a complex
language from scratch. Amazingly, we can.

The first cases were wrung from two of the more sorrowful episodes

of world history, the Atlantic slave trade and indentured servitude in
the South Pacific. Perhaps mindful of the Tower of Babel, some of the
masters of tobacco, cotton, coffee, and sugar plantations deliberately
mixed slaves and laborers from different language backgrounds; oth-
ers preferred specific ethnicities but had to accept mixtures because
Chatterboxes 33
that was all that was available. When speakers of different languages
have to communicate to carry out practical tasks but do not have the
opportunity to learn one another's languages, they develop a make-
shift jargon called a pidgin. Pidgins are choppy strings of words
borrowed from the language of the colonizers or plantation owners,
highly variable in order and with little in the way of grammar. Some-
times a pidgin can become a lingua franca and gradually increase in
complexity over decades, as in the "Pidgin English" of the modern
South Pacific. (Prince Philip was delighted to learn on a visit to New
Guinea that he is referred to in that language as fella belong Mrs.

But the linguist Derek Bickerton has presented evidence that in

many cases a pidgin can be transmuted into a full complex language
in one fell swoop: all it takes is for a group of children to be exposed
to the pidgin at the age when they acquire their mother tongue. That
happened, Bickerton has argued, when children were isolated from
their parents and were tended collectively by a worker who spoke to
them in the pidgin. Not content to reproduce the fragmentary word
strings, the children injected grammatical complexity where none
existed before, resulting in a brand-new, richly expressive language.
The language that results when children make a pidgin their native
tongue is called a creole.

Bickerton's main evidence comes from a unique historical circum-

stance. Though the slave plantations that spawned most Creoles are,
fortunately, a thing of the remote past, one episode of creolization
occurred recently enough for us to study its principal players. Just
before the turn of the century there was a boom in Hawaiian sugar
plantations, whose demands for labor quickly outstripped the native
pool. Workers were brought in from China, Japan, Korea, Portugal,
the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and a pidgin quickly developed.
Many of the immigrant laborers who first developed that pidgin were
alive when Bickerton interviewed them in the 1970s. Here are some
typical examples of their speech:
Me cape buy, me check make.
Building—high place—wall pat—time—nowtime—an' den

—a new tempecha eri time show you.

Good, dis one. Kaukau any-kin' dis one. Pilipine islan' no

good. No mo money.

From the individual words and the context, it was possible for the
listener to infer that the first speaker, a ninety-two-year-old Japanese
immigrant talking about his earlier days as a coffee farmer, was trying
to say "He bought my coffee; he made me out a check." But the
utterance itself could just as easily have meant "I bought coffee; I made
him out a check," which would have been appropriate if he had been
referring to his current situation as a store owner. The second speaker,
another elderly Japanese immigrant, had been introduced to the wonders
of civilization in Los Angeles by one of his many children, and was
saying that there was an electric sign high up on the wall of the building
which displayed the time and temperature. The third speaker, a sixty-
nine-year-old Filipino, was saying "It's better here than in the Philip-
pines; here you can get all kinds of food, but over there there isn't any
money to buy food with." (One of the kinds of food was "pfrawg,"
which he caught for himself in the marshes by the method of "kank da
head.") In all these cases, the speaker's intentions had to be filled in by
the listener. The pidgin did not offer the speakers the ordinary grammati-
cal resources to convey these messages—no consistent word order, no
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