The premise is simple: “Language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution.”
This may seem like common sense, but its consequences challenge many of our commonly held beliefs about language and expression.
One of these beliefs is that words determine thoughts. One of the most popular illustrations of this comes from George Orwell’s 1984 and the development of Newspeak. Another popular example of linguistic determinism is in the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax,” which claims that Inuit have four hundred words for “snow.” Pinker’s analysis and discrediting of this issue is fascinating and thorough.
Here’s another interesting point that may resonate with musicians and artists:
“To convince you that there is a language instinct, I will have to fill in an argument that leads from the jabbering of modern peoples to the putative genes for grammar…The crux of the argument is that complex language is universal because children actually reinvent it, generation after generation – not because they are taught, not because they are generally smart, not because it is useful to them, but because they just can’t help it.”
If music has any resemblance to language, this would certainly have implications.
These are just two brief ideas Pinker explores in this book. Overall, it’s a deep investigation into the nature of language – “how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, and how it evolved” (from the cover notes). Though Pinker’s analysis occasionally gets technical, I often found myself laughing out loud from his humour and wit. It’s an excellent read!
Here’s an RSA animation of one of his speeches: