Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language

Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language


Pinker (psychology, MIT) explains the mysteries of language, such as why languages change over time and how children learn their native language, by dissecting the idea that language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of creative rules. Pinker connects a remarkable number of topics such as the attempts to simulate language using computers; the nature of human concepts; the peculiarities of the English language; and the theories of Noam Chomsky, through a minute dissection of the phenomenon of regular and irregular verbs.


This book tries to illuminate the nature of language and mind by choosing a single phenomenon and examining it from every angle imaginable. That phenomenon is regular and irregular verbs, the bane of every language student.

At first glance that approach might seem to lie in the great academic tradition of knowing more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing. But please don't put the book down just yet. Seeing the world in a grain of sand is often the way of science, as when geneticists agreed to study the lowly fruit fly so that their findings might cumulate into a deep understanding that would have been impossible had each scientist started from scratch with a different organism. Like fruit flies, regular and irregular verbs are small and easy to breed, and they contain, in an easily visible form, the machinery that powers larger phenomena in all their glorious complexity.

Since the dawn of the modern study of the mind in the late 1950s, children's language errors such as breaked and holded, which could not have been parroted from their parents' speech, have served as a vivid reminder that the mind of the child is not a sponge, but actively assembles words and concepts into new combinations guided by rules and regularities. Every new theory of the mind has tried to account for this feat of childhood creativity, and perhaps the most heated debate in contemporary cognitive science -- on whether the mind is more like an artificial neural network or a symbol-manipulating computer -- has used it as a benchmark.

The exploration of regular and irregular verbs will take us from the prehistoric tribes that originated our language to the brain-imaging and genesequencing technologies of the new millennium. Perhaps best of all, this case study immerses us in that mixture of mathematical beauty and human quirki-

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