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Wow - I was not expecting this book to offer so much insight on the human mind.
The book answers a fairly mundane question: do regular and irregular verbs use different brain systems? He says yes. Irregular verbs, such as "go, went, gone" are memorized, like in a list. Regular verbs, such as "walk, walked, walked," are assembled using a rule—add -ed.
It's not mundane, however, because the regular-irrugular split turns out to be just an example of two systems that are present in everything we do: one works by memorization and association, and one works by abstract rules. Anytime we want to categorize anything (which occurs in essentially any debate or discussion of any kind) we need to understand which system our words are based on. The consequences for how we think about meaning could be far reaching.
You need to slog through a few chapters before this book picks up, so don't let yourself get turned away. Once he starts revealing the hidden reasons behind why we say "mice trap" but not "rats trap" and many other surprises in our everyday speech, it's pretty darn fascinating.
I really appreciate that he gets into neuroscience in the later chapters and doesn't treat linguistics as a humanities fundamentally incompatible with other sciences.
If you're a word or language nerd, you'll love this. If you're just interested in how the human mind works, you might be pleasantly surprised how much understanding human grammar can teach you.
14 of 15 people found this review helpful
Who would have thought that you could write a whole book about irregular verbs? Well, I’m exaggerating, some of the book is also about irregular noun inflections and a lot of the book describes how we learn the rules of language that tell us when to use irregular verbs versus when to use the regular forms. And at the end there’s an expansion from the incredibly narrow and detailed subject of irregular verbs into human intelligence in general, as a way of saying how wonderful our species is to be able to do so many clever things, including mastering the use of irregular verbs.
I like Steven Pinker’s books a lot (although I just googled him and I’m not crazy about his hairstyle). I really enjoyed ‘The Language Instinct’, in which he tries to show (successfully in my opinion) that the human brain is genetically equipped with language modules. I also enjoyed ‘Blank Slate’ in which he argues that the human mind is not at all a blank state. Both of these books overlap with this one, in the sense that they all agree that the brain is genetically pre-programmed to acquire certain specific types of knowledge and skills.
However, my favourite of his books was on an entirely different subject: ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ is a fascinating analysis of the history of violence, showing, perhaps counterintuitively, that violence has tended to steadily decrease over the course of human history.
But I digress - let's get back to this book, ‘Words and Rules’: You definitely have to be a Word-Nerd to enjoy this book. I am one, and so I did. I now understand language better than I did before. It’s a bit dry and technical at times but it does provide answers around how people acquire and use language.
4 of 5 people found this review helpful