Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature

by Steven Pinker

Ahhhh, I finally found the psycholinguistics book I've been looking for! I've read a few other books on language (How Language Works, by David Crystal; and I think the other one was Empires of the Word, by Nicholas Ostler) that were interesting in their own ways, but this was the jackpot.

You might be aware of the idea that language can limit or determine the way we think, that if a language lacks certain concepts or grammatical structures (or has ones another language does not have), the speakers of that language don't or can't have those mental concepts because they don't just speak that language, they actually think in that language too. Classic examples are Amazonian tribes that don't have words for numbers higher than two; North American Indian tribes that lack future tense; and the habitual case in Black American English, sometimes called Ebonics (i.e., He be in the kitchen, meaning he is habitually or often in the kitchen, vs. He [is] in the kitchen, meaning he happens to be in the kitchen at the moment).

At first glance, it's stunningly obvious — just try thinking something that isn't words or at least accompanied by words in your mind — and also staggeringly consequential — no wonder it's so difficult to communicate across cultural barriers! But it's also pretty pointless, in a way. Knowing it doesn't serve any purpose, doesn't free your mind from the prison of language, doesn't help the peoples of the world finally to get along and live in peace. Also, it turns out to be not really true, or at least not true in the way most people understand it.

Pinker turns the idea on its head and shows how analyzing language can reveal things about the way we think. That's where the psycholinguistics and conceptual semantics come in. There's a ton of fascinating information in this book, so I'm not going to try to summarize it. I will say, however, that I found the first two-thirds of the book more interesting; I especially liked the sections discussing grammar vis-à-vis our mental concepts of space and time, as well as the chapter on metaphor. The last two chapters deal with broader issues of pragmatics, taboo words, conversation strategies, etc.

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