The Language Instinct – A Book Review

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana” – Anthony Oettinger

The above quote is often attributed to the absurdly witty Groucho Marx, and who would second guess it? The man gave us English-exploiting jokes like, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read,” and, “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in them, I’ll never know.” The true author of this quote, however, is Anthony Oettinger, a linguist and computer scientist who, in the 1960s, tried to make an artificial intelligence that could comprehend English sentences.

The following has long been a maxim of computer/cognitive sciences: what’s hard is easy and what’s easy is hard. That is, what’s hard (for humans) is easy (for computers) and what’s easy (for humans) is hard (for computers). For example, humans can remember seven, plus or minus two, items in their short-term memory before forgetting, whereas computers can retain absurd amounts of information and “forgetting” cannot occur unless one actively deletes an item. However, humans can read context, use common sense, and analyze intonation, facial expressions, and intention, to expertly conclude what another speaker means to say, whereas computers can do no such thing. This quote, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana,” summarizes Oettinger’s findings–as he instructed the AI to comprehend “time flies like an arrow,” an incredibly straightforward and simple metaphor any human understands as “time goes by quickly.” The computer, however, comprehended it literally, as one would comprehend “fruit flies like a banana” or “dogs love a bone.”

THE REVIEW

This “syntactic ambiguity” (a sentence with many possible meanings) is a great example of the illusory nature of language. In comprehending everyday speech, we use a “top-down” method, starting with the conscious mind, which analyzes context and our past experiences and lessons learned, and ending with the unconscious mind, in which instinctual cognitive mechanisms built for language piece apart and comprehend the grumbles, hoots, sighs from the speaker which hit our ears. As the AI’s comprehension shows, our knowledge determines our perception. This is of utmost importance in understanding, for instance, why people can look at the same evidence for, say, climate change, and still come to drastically different conclusions.

Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct is filled with insights such as those above. Is the black English vernacular lesser than the standard english vernacular? It turns out (and this is not a new discovery, but it deserves more publicity) no–it still uses set-in-stone grammatical and syntactic rules. What makes a language a language and a dialect submissive to that language? Nothing. As the linguist Max Weinrich once said, “a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy.” How come no group or civilization has ever been found which did not have spoken language? Because it is not an innovation–written language is, but spoken language is an instinct. Why are babies geniuses when it comes to learning languages but adults struggle greatly? It seems sections of the brain during childhood are supercharged to grasp language. Is the foreboding ending of Orwell’s 1984 really so dismal? Nope; it’s actually quite optimistic (you’ll have to read this one–it’s brilliant).

Pinker covers a plethora of topics in The Language Instinct. In fact, looking back over my notes from the first chapter to the last, it’s hard to believe the book was only 446 pages long (not including another seventy plus pages of references and glossary notes). He is an expert writer, breaking down complex ideas and theories into beautiful and concise sentences most anyone could grasp. This is a modern, accessible, funny, and incredibly valuable book by one of the most important academics alive today. It will change the way you view how you think and speak, and will revolutionize your understanding of language. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up!

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