Thursday, 25 November 2010

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

I have always had an appetite for linguistics, and words have always fascinated me beyond their simple meanings or double-meanings, beyond syntax and grammar to a deeper level of comprehension. Stupidly, I have read little on the subject before (but found myself inexplicably titillated by the tiny linguistics section of my local library and always left wanting by the light, comedic books I have picked up about etymology or grammar). The Stuff of Thought takes a deeper, more investigative look into the way we use language, and what the subsequent discoveries say about human nature.

Pinker is not ‘light and comedic’ although he can be witty and sometimes wry. He subscribes to the school of linguistic thought which asserts that language is a window into human nature, rather than a controlling force that dictates how we are (his is a common assumption in modern linguistics – and the book does give us some background for reference). In The Stuff of Thought he attempts to show why that is true – presumably to a wider readership who aren’t linguists and therefore familiar with the conclusion already.

Pinker elaborates on many assertions to that end – such as how it is possible that two people can view the same event in two entirely different ways, the ‘zooming in’ of the microscope on verbs and verb structures which provides answers to seemingly unsolvable questions about semantics and ‘learning the unlearnable’, an entire chapter on taboo language (swear words etc.) and what makes them so powerful (my favourite example of this being the posited “what does the ‘fuck’ in ‘fuck you’ actually mean?”), and the negotiation of relationships through language – the motions of which we go through every day, in one way or another.

It is tempting to simply fill this post with exciting linguistic discoveries I made as a result of reading this book, but that would be silly. There isn’t much to say apart from if you get the amount of delight from semantics and verb forms that I do, this is a must-read. Pinker makes this kind of science accessible (hence this made the New York Times Bestseller list) to a wide audience of enthusiastic word-fondlers, and for that I am eternally grateful to him. I am determined to read his four other books on the subject of cognitive science, and probe further into the wonders of linguistic learning.

EXTRA: Here is a video from 2005 of Pinker doing a TED talk about the ideas he was working on for this very book.

3 comments: said...

What a fabulous review! The book sounds phenomenal.

Evelyn said...

Thanks Corrine! I urge you to read it if you are at all interested in linguistics. It's scienc-y but still accessible. :)

Steoffrey said...

Hey thanks! I kinda sketched out my dress on a scrap piece of paper and had it made from some random bridal shop in Chandler, AZ. It wasn't exaaactly what I had in mind- but then again I'm no artist. :)