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Words and Rules


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Table of Contents

1. The Infinite Library 2. Dissection by Linguistics 3. Broken Telephone 4. In Single Combat 5. Word Nerds 6. Of Mice and Men 7. Kids Say the Darnedest Things 8. The Horrors of the German Language 9. The Black Box 10. A Digital Mind in an Analog World

About the Author

Steven Pinker, a native of Montreal, studied experimental psychology at McGill University and Harvard University. He is a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Pinker conducts research on languages and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and is the author of eight books, including The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), The Blank Slate (2002), The Stuff of Thought (2007), and most recently The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011).


For more than a dozen years, Pinker (brain and cognitive sciences, MIT) has conducted experimental studies of human linguistic behavior and pondered the nature of language and its relation to the brain. He has thereby contributed voluminously to scientific literature in the still youthful field of cognitive science. In recent years, much of his time in the lab as well as theoretical analysis has focused on a single phenomenon--regular and irregular verbs. By attacking this phenomenon from a wide variety of disciplines, Pinker enters some of the great debates about how the brain processes language. In explaining how language works and how we learn it, he summarizes current research and competing theoretical models in an extremely readable and enjoyable style. With this title and with his previous ones, The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, Pinker joins Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett as one of the great popularizers of modern science.--Paul A. D'Alessandro, Portland P.L., ME Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

MIT linguist Pinker builds on his previous successes (How the Mind Works; The Language Instinct) with another book explaining how we learn and deploy word, phrase and utterance. Some linguists (notably Noam Chomsky) have argued that everything in speech comes from hidden, hard-wired rules. Others (notably some computer scientists) claim that we learn language by association, picking up raw data first. Pinker argues that our brains exhibit both kinds of thought, and that we can see them both in English verbs: rule application ("combination") governs regular verbs, memory ("lookup") handles irregulars. The interplay of the two characterizes all language, perhaps all thought. Each of Pinker's 10 chapters takes up a different field of research, but all 10 concern regular and irregular forms of words. Pinker shows what scientists learn from children's speech errors (My brother got sick and pukeded); from survey questions (What do you call more than one wug?); from similar rules in varying languages (English, German and Arapesh); from theoretical models and their failings and from brain disorders like jargon anomia (whose victims use complex sentences, but say things like "nose cone" when they mean "phone call"). Sometimes Pinker explains linguists' current consensus; at other times, he makes a case for his own theoretical school. His previous books have been accused of excessive ambition; here he largely sticks to his own fields. The result, with its crisp prose and neat analogies, makes required reading for anyone interested in cognition and language. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

"the book provides a scholarly, persuasive, enjoyable, and eminently readable account of important language phenomena."--Nature
"[An excellent work of popular science."--Thomas Nagel, The New Republic
"A fascinating voyage of discovery."--Sunday Telegraph
"An intellectual joyride."--Globe and Mail
"Compelling and revelatory."--Guardian
"Not only does Pinker breathe life into the topic, he makes the reading breathtakingly exciting."--Montreal Gazette

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