The 'Language Instinct' Debate: Revised Edition
When it was first published in 1997, Geoffrey Sampson's Educating Eve was described as the definitive response to Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct and Noam Chomsky's nativism. In this revised and expanded new edition, Sampson revisits his original arguments in the light of fresh evidence that has emerged since the original publication.
Since Chomsky revolutionized the study of language in the 1960s, it has increasingly come to be accepted that language and other knowledge structures are hard-wired in our genes. According to this view, human beings are born with a rich structure of cognition already in place. But people do not realize how thin the evidence for that idea is.
The 'Language Instinct' Debate examines the various arguments for instinctive knowledge, and finds that each one rests on false premisses or embodies logical fallacies. The structures of language are shown to be purely cultural creations.
With a new chapter entitled 'How People Really Speak' which uses corpus data to analyse how language is used in spontaneous English conversation, responses to critics, extensive revisions throughout, and a new preface by Paul Postal of New York University, this new edition will be an essential purchase for students, academics, and general readers interested in the debate about the 'language instinct'.
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As a scientific adviser to graduate students and as a PhD in linguistics I have to say that I struggle with Sampson's book for several reasons. First I have a problem with his use of hyperbole such as "most people" (p. 7), "very many people" (p. 1), "some people" (p. 11), "no one would read Chomsky..." (p. 13) and "All academic philosophers know" (p. 19). These are just a few examples I found in Chapter One. His book is filled with this type of assumptive speech once called "Dicto Simpliciter." He also seems to struggle with Hasty Generalizations. I fear that Sampson has failed to keep up with the data concerning new research in language and speech production. Technology has given us tools beyond imagination and as a result we have new insights into language production, language development and how humans speak. Dr. Deb Roy from MIT (cognitive scientist) has done extensive research on the emergence of language in infants. Dr. Faraneh Vargha-Khadem from University College London has actually isolated the Fox P2 gene responsible for certain types of speech defects and Prof. Gary Morgan's studies into autism shows that some brains have no language barrier at all and can master all the skills of 20 languages. I just have to say that I cannot recommend a book with these types of over generalizations. In addition, it seems that Sampson is angry or acidic towards nativists in general, Chomsky and Pinker in particular. He almost rants in the first three chapters. The evidence of a language instinct is no longer thin, but rather exploding as technology allows us to look into what makes us speak. All of this to say that language cannot be purely cultural if genetic mutations can deform it.