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28+ quotes from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker

Quotes from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

Steven Pinker ·  448 pages

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“Chomsky is a pencil-and-paper theoretician who wouldn't know Jabba the Hutt from the Cookie Monster,”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“In the speech sound wave, one word runs into the next seamlessly; there are no little silences between spoken words the way there are white spaces between written words. We simply hallucinate word boundaries when we reach the end of a stretch of sound that matches some entry in our mental dictionary.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“A woman gets into a taxi in Boston's Logan airport and asks the driver, 'Can you take me somplace where I can get scrod?' He says, 'Gee, that's the first time I've heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“Chomsky's writings are 'classics' in Mark Twain's sense: something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“Humans are so innately hardwired for language that they can no more suppress their ability to learn and use language than they can suppress the instinct to pull a hand back from a hot surface.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“The word 'glamour' comes from the word 'grammar', and since the Chomskyan revolution the etymology has been fitting. Who could not be dazzled by the creative power of the mental grammar, by its ability to convey an infinite number of thoughts with a finite set of rules?”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“We hear speech as a string of separate words, but unlike the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it, a word boundary with no one to hear it has no sound. In the speech sound wave, one word runs into the next seamlessly; there are no little silences between spoken words the way there are white spaces between written words. We simply hallucinate word boundaries when we reach the edge of a stretch of sound that matches some entry in our mental dictionary. This becomes apparent when we listen to speech in a foreign language: it is impossible to tell where one word ends the next begins. The seamlessness of speech is also apparent in 'oro­nyms', strings of sound that can be carved into words in two different ways: The good can decay many ways / The good candy came anyways.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“The very concept of imitation is suspect to begin with (if children are general imitators, why don’t they imitate their parents’ habit of sitting quietly in airplanes?),”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“(...) Language acquisition might be like other biological functions. The linguistic clumsiness of tourists and students might be the price we pay for the linguistic genius we displayed as babies, just as the decrepitude of age is the price we pay for the vigor of youth.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“In nature’s talent show we are simply a species of primate with our own act, a knack for communicating information about who did what to whom by modulating the sounds we make when we exhale.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“Why do we say razzle-dazzle instead of dazzle-razzle? Why super-duper, helter-skelter, harum-scarum, hocus-pocus, willy-nilly, hully-gully, roly-poly, holy moly, herky-jerky, walkie-talkie, namby-pamby, mumbo-jumbo, loosey-goosey, wing-ding, wham-bam, hobnob, razza-matazz, and rub-a-dub-dub? I thought you'd never ask. Consonants differ in "obstruency"—the degree to which they impede the flow of air, ranging from merely making it resonate, to forcing it noisily past an obstruction, to stopping it up altogether. The word beginning with the less obstruent consonant always comes before the word beginning with the more obstruent consonant. Why ask why?”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“The audible signals people can produce are not a series of crisp beeps like on a touch-tone phone. Speech is a river of breath, bent into hisses and hums by the soft flesh of the mouth and throat.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“The difference between bush and ladder also allows us to put a lid on a fruitless and boring debate. That debate is over what qualifies as True Language. One side lists some qualities that human language has but that no animal has yet demonstrated: reference, use of symbols displaced of in time and space from their referents, creativity, categorical speech perception, consistent ordering, hierarchical structure, infinity, recursion, and so on. The other side finds some counter-example in the animal kingdom (perhaps budgies can discriminate speech sounds, or dolphins or parrots can attend to word order when carrying out commands, or some songbird can improvise indefinitely without repeating itself), and gloats that the citadel of human uniqueness has been breached. The Human Uniqueness team relinquishes that criterion but emphasizes others or adds new ones to the list, provoking angry objections that they are moving the goalposts. To see how silly this all is, imagine a debate over whether flatworms have True Vision or houseflies have True Hands. Is an iris critical? Eyelashes? Fingernails? Who cares? This is a debate for dictionary-writers, not scientists. Plato and Diogenes were not doing biology when Plato defined man as a "featherless biped" and Diogenes refuted him with a plucked chicken.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“As far as the language instinct is concerned, the correlation between genes and languages is a coincidence. People store genes in their gonads and pass them to their children through their genitals; they store grammars in their brains and pass them to their children through their mouths. Gonads and brains are attached to each other in bodies, so when bodies move, genes and grammars move together. That is the only reason that geneticists find any correlation between the two.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“Sometimes it is not easy to find any words that properly convey a thought. When we hear or read, we usually remember the gist, not the exact words, so there has to be such a thing as a gist that is not the same as a bunch of words.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“of usage. For the reader of popular science, I hope to explain what is behind the recent discoveries (or, in many cases, nondiscoveries) reported in the press: universal deep structures, brainy babies, grammar genes, artificially intelligent computers, neural networks, signing chimps, talking Neanderthals, idiot savants, feral”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“Darwin concluded that language ability is “an instinctive tendency to acquire an art,” a design that is not peculiar to humans but seen in other species such as song-learning birds. A language instinct may seem jarring to those who think of language as the zenith of the human intellect and who think of instincts as brute impulses that compel furry or feathered zombies to build a dam or up and fly south. But one of Darwin’s followers, William James, noted that an instinct possessor need not act as a “fatal automaton.” He argued that we have all the instincts that animals do, and many more besides; our flexible intelligence comes from the interplay of many instincts competing. Indeed, the instinctive nature of human thought is just what makes it so hard for us to see that it is an instinct: It takes…a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange, so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, “Of course we smile, of course our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved!” And so, probably, does each animal feel about the particular things it tends to do in presence of particular objects…. To the lion it is the lioness which is made to be loved; to the bear, the she-bear. To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“For example, there is an old grammarian’s saw about how a sentence can end in five prepositions. Daddy trudges upstairs to Junior’s bedroom to read him a bedtime story. Junior spots the book, scowls, and asks, “Daddy, what did you bring that book that I don’t want to be read to out of up for?”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“Any language is a supreme achievement of a uniquely human collective genius, as divine and endless a mystery as a living organism.” A”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“Syntax is complex, but the complexity is there for a reason. For our thoughts are surely even more complex, and we are limited by a mouth that can pronounce a single word at a time.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“marketroid n. Member of a company’s marketing department.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“The English language is a rich verbal tapestry woven together from the tongues of the Greeks, the Latins, the Angles, the Klaxtons, the Celtics, and many more other ancient peoples, all of whom had severe drinking problems.” Let”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“OLD ENGLISH (c. 1000): Faeder ure thu the eart on heofonum, si thin nama gehalgod. Tobecume thin rice. Gewurthe in willa on eorthan swa swa on heofonum.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other's brains with exquisite precision.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“No system today can duplicate a person’s ability to recognize both many words and many speakers. Perhaps the state of the art is a system called DragonDictate, which runs on a personal computer and can recognize 30,000 words.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“Most adults never master a foreign language, especially the phonology—hence the ubiquitous foreign accent.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“an exception: in the sentence I asked him what he thought of my review in his book, and his response was unprintable, the word unprintable means something much more specific than “incapable of being printed.”) The”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


“The biologist J.B.S. Haldane once said that there are two reasons why humans do not turn into angels: moral imperfection and a body plan that cannot accommodate both arms and wings.”
― Steven Pinker, quote from The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language


About the author

Steven Pinker
Born place: in Montreal, Canada
Born date September 18, 1954
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