No language instinct

Geoffrey Sampson doesn’t believe in the language instinct. I remember reading his book Educating Eve in my final year at university and being splendidly, incoherantly, annoyed by his views on the nature-nurture debate. My girlfriend at the time had been set the book as part of her linguistics course and I singularly failed to express to her just how wrong-headed Sampson’s arguments were – how he completely failed to engage with the whole point of Pinker’s book., for one thing.

Of course I was fresh from reading things like Rethinking Innateness and had all the zeal of the new convert. I can’t remember the details of Sampson’s argument, and now I think i’d like to re-read it to check if i still feel the same way, and maybe to recapture that feeling of annoyance. Maybe my appreciation of it will have changed, I certainly think my appreciation of the language innateness debate has changed – i’ve had the luck to read Terance Deacon’s The Symbolic Species for a start, and that’s a book which should stretch anyone’s appreciation of language and brain evolution.

One reply on “No language instinct”

I applied for a job with Sampson after my undergraduate. Didn’t get it, and I’m not sure that my computational skills would have been up to it. He’s a bit of a strange character, with his opinions on race (his website has an essay on it under “..dissident” heading) and so on, and his views on nativism seem rather tied up with his ideas on politics. Interestingly, if you turn to present-day Pinker, he too is overwhelmingly preoccupied with relating science to politics. (This is a movement which is becoming more fashionable, as science becomes increasingly politicised.) Funnily enough, both Pinker and Sampson are fond of fairly conservative, democratic society, but see nativism as its justification or damnation (respectively).

Anyway, I remember reading a review of Language Instinct by Michael Tomasello, (1995, Cognitive Devpt 10, pp131-156) entitled ‘Language is not an instinct’, which was short, lucid and plotted out various issues which undermine the “instinct” argument, without denying general innate cognitive propensities that allow language. This position is that of ‘Cognitive Linguistics’ and ‘Functional Linguistics’ , which focuses on categorisation and the use of discourse schemas. It’s always looked interesting to me, but I never really followed it up, being funneled away from language into other stuff. But its worth a look.

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