Why We Should Embrace Language Innovation (Steven Pinker)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you ever use the word “hangry”? Do you think you should or shouldn’t? Do you take a functional or a purist approach to language?

In The Language Instinct, experimental psychologist Steven Pinker argues that language is an innate, biological ability in humans—not just an element of human culture that gets passed from person to person. His theory explains his openness to language innovation.

Continue reading to discover why, according to Pinker, we shouldn’t be afraid to toss out arbitrary grammar conventions.

Why We Should Embrace Language Innovation

Pinker advocates for language innovation. This requires a functional, rather than a purist, approach to language and grammar. He argues that, if a new slang term or speech pattern helps people communicate nuanced ideas, then it enhances language rather than diminishes it.

Pinker uses his innatist theory of language to explain why people should generally be open to changing language conventions. Pinker contends that language evolved in humans because of its usefulness for social cohesion and cooperation. Therefore, if the purpose of language is to help people communicate ideas clearly, then people will naturally make modifications to language in pursuit of the goal. This more functional approach to language is considered “descriptive” as opposed to the “prescriptive” approach, which focuses on defining rules for how language should be used.

For example, the word “hangry,” a relatively recent addition to dictionaries, concisely conveys the idea of being angry or irritable as a result of hunger. The word has one consistent and commonly understood meaning, and it communicates an idea that people couldn’t previously express in a single word. According to the descriptive school of thought, it’s a valuable term, but according to the prescriptive approach, it’s improper English. 

Pinker points out that, when people complain about bad grammar or how the younger generation is ruining a language with their slang, they’re ignoring the fact that all language conventions (everything outside of the universal grammar) are completely arbitrary, and innovations are likely to enhance a language. Therefore, Pinker asserts that people shouldn’t jump to negative conclusions about the intelligence or linguistic competence of anyone who speaks a different dialect or makes up new words.

(Shortform note: Like Pinker, lexicographers who decide on what words get added to the dictionary have a descriptive approach to language. Dictionaries add up to 1,000 new words per year, and the definitions are based on how the words are commonly used. Lexicographers generally add a word to official dictionaries if it’s used by a lot of people, it’s used in a fairly consistent way, it’s likely to remain in common usage for a while, and it’s useful for the general public. These criteria, which emphasize functionality, support Pinker’s idea that creative language enhances communication.)

Exercise: Embrace Language Innovation

Pinker takes a functional approach to language, arguing that its purpose is to help people communicate ideas clearly, and people naturally modify the language to communicate better. Therefore, we should be open to new language conventions. Use these exercises to explore the potential benefits of adapting to new modes of language.

  • Write down a few recently invented words or slang terms that you use regularly but that aren’t considered suitable for academic or more formal writing. For example, “YOLO,” “situationship,” or expressions like “That movie gave me all the feels,” and “My dog has the zoomies.”
  • For the words and phrases you listed above, write down why they might have integrated into your vocabulary. Do the terms provide a faster way of communicating an idea, or do they communicate something that other words don’t? Was it something that other people started saying, so you adapted accordingly?
  • If you were to create a new word or expression and use it in a casual conversation, how would other people react? How would they interpret a word or phrase they’re encountering for the first time? 
  • If there are any new popular words or phrases that you haven’t adopted yet, reflect on why you might feel resistant to them. Has this guide changed how you feel about embracing recently invented words or phrases? Why or why not?
Why We Should Embrace Language Innovation (Steven Pinker)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Language Instinct summary:

  • How language is an innate ability—not an element of culture
  • A look at unique qualities of human language
  • How slang enhances a language, rather than diminishing it

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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