Re: Steven Pinker's misinterpretation of chimp language

Danny Yee (danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Fri, 29 Mar 1996 20:06:10 +1000

Someone quoted from the primate-talk list:
> I am very happy to see that Pinker is finally getting something other than
> praise. This is, in my opinion, a pretty ordinary book (a rash statement
> from an author).

Well, I confess I thought _The Language Instinct_ was a *brilliant*
book -- to quote from a review I'm writing "the best one volume work on
[linguistics] I have read". (Admittedly, I'm no linguist, but I'd like
to think I'm capable of telling a fudged argument from a compelling one.)

> In all of the cases where he asserts the innateness of
> language the argument is completely fudged.

Some details would be good. Personally I think the evidence for large
slabs of human language being "innate" is overwhelming (and thought so
before reading Pinker's book); I have the impression the vast majority
of modern linguists think the same way.

> On child languae acquisition I
> became more and more certain that he did not have children himself, until
> he confirmed it.

This seems irrelvant since he doesn't draw on his own experience,
citing instead evidence from studies of child development. (Personally
I think that the evidence of methodologically unsophisticated parents
on their own children is probably dubious anyway :-).

> My favourite moment is when he suggests that archaeologists actually
> looking for evidence of language origins is like a drunk looking for his
> keys under a lamppost. To which my reply is that, provided the lamppost is
> in the vicinity of the car and the pub this may be the best place to start
> looking. Pinker would take a taxi back home (assuming he has any money
> left) ignoring the history of how he got to the pub in the first place.
> This is one of many instances of people speculating about language origins
> fearless of the possibility that there might be evidence that gets in the
> way of their story.

!?! This doesn't seem consistent.

Pinker is very concerned to argue (contra Chomsky) that it *is* useful
looking at language from the perspective of evolutionary biology. I
just reread the chapter on the subject and I can't see anything that
looks like speculation fearless of conflicting evidence...

Danny Yee.