By reminding us what a miracle language is—that by simply making noises with our mouths, we bring ideas to each other's minds—Steven Pinker begins this remarkable odyssey that takes us from the physiology of speech to the mystery of consciousness itself.
Amazed by the prodigious ability of children to learn language, Pinker, 39, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, argues that the process is a biological function determined by the genetic makeup of our brains. Like the renowned linguist Noam Chomsky, Pinker believes we are born knowing the general principles of language, and as we grow up, we add such elements as vocabulary and syntax.
Writing colloquially, Pinker moves from teenage slang and musical lyrics to complicated linguistic theory. He quotes Dan Quayle and Yogi Berra to explain the role genetics may play in varying language capabilities; he debunks rigid grammatical rules, citing Star Trek's "to boldly go where no man has gone before" as a case for split infinitives. While linguistics and grammarians might disagree with some of his conclusions, he marshals his evidence in captivating ways. The Language Instinct covers an enormous amount of material, and if at times the going is slow, the journey is worth it. (Morrow, $23)