Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

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9780060958404: Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

How does language work, and how do we learn to speak? Why do languages change over time, and why do they have so many quirks and irregularities? In this original and totally entertaining book written in the same engaging style that illuminated his bestselling classics, The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, Seven Pinker explores the profound mysteries of language.

By picking a deceptively simple phenomenon--regular and irregular verbs--Pinker connects an astonishing array of topics in the sciences and the humanities: the history of languages; the theories of Noam Chomosky and his critics; the attempts to create language using computer simulations of neural networks; what there is to learn from children's grammatical "mistakes"; the latest techniques in identifying genes and imaging the brain; and major ideas in the history of Western philosophy. He makes sense of all this with the help of a single, powerful idea: that language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammer of creative rules. His theory extends beyond language and offers insight in the very nature of the human mind.

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Review:

Human languages are capable of expressing a literally endless number of different ideas. How do we manage it--so effortlessly that we scarcely ever stop to think about it? In Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, a look at the simple concepts that we use to devise works as complex as love sonnets and tax laws, renowned neuroscientist and linguist Steven Pinker shows us how. The latest linguistic research suggests that each of us stores a limited (though large) number of words and word-parts in memory and manipulates them with a much smaller number of rules to produce every writing and utterance, and Pinker explains every step of the way with engaging good humor.

Pinker's enthusiasm for the subject infects the reader, particularly as he emphasizes the relation between how we communicate and how we think. What does it mean that a small child who has never heard the word wug can tell a researcher that when one wug meets another, there are two wugs? Some rule must be telling the child that English plurals end in -s, which also explains mistakes like mouses. Is our communication linked inextricably with our thinking? Pinker says yes, and it's hard to disagree. Words and Rules is an excellent introduction to and overview of current thinking about language, and will greatly reward the careful reader with new ways of thinking about how we think, talk, and write. --Rob Lightner

From the Back Cover:

How does language work? How do we learn to speak? Why do languages change? Why do they have so many quirks? What does language reveal about the mind?

Steven Pinker explores the mysteries of language in this original and hugely entertaining book. Pinker uses a deceptively simple phenomenon—regular and irregular verbs—to illuminate an astonishing array of topics: the history of languages, what we can learn from children's grammatical mistakes, the genetic and neurobiological underpinnings of language, and some of the major themes in Western philosophy. The key idea—that language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of creative rules—extends beyond language, offering insight into the nature of thinking. For fans of The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought, here is another cornucopia of ideas about language and mind.

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