Words and Rules
Recently finished reading Words and Rules by Steven Pinker. Very interesting and enjoyable. The book breaks down numerous aspects of the way our brains handle language by looking through the prism of irregular verbs, discussing the etymology of irregular verbs (which I found to be the most entertaining part of the book–I guess that says more about me than the book); showing regularity in irregulars (stink/stank/stunk; drink/drank/drunk) and how irregulars get regularized over time; covering how irregulars work in other languages, especially The Awful German Language, where irregular verbs outnumber regular verbs (calling into question the very notion of regularity); and even delving into the neuroanatomical basis for the problems that some people have conjugating verbs.
At the core of the book, though, he’s looking at two basic models for how we organize language in our heads: a Chomskyite rules-based model that reduces irregulars to a few basic rules, which is remarkable as an academic abstraction, but assumes that children are already doctorate-level linguists at an intuitive level; and a neural-network model that assumes our brains unthinkingly string together sounds without the meaning of the words influencing how we use them, a model that is defeated by Pinker’s favorite pet example, the verb “fly,” which is normally irregular (fly/flew) but gets regularized in the limited context of baseball–“he flied out to left field.”