Monday, February 9, 2009

The Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
Steven Pinker (2007, Viking)

One of the big Philosophical (as in, 'unanswerable') questions is this: what is thought before it is clothed in language? I'm not learned enough to give you all the references, but it is a question of some standing, a great Western koan. In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker uses language itself to probe the question: the author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works combines his two great interests, and the result is as rich and tasty as strawberries with chocolate.
Pinker is not only a brilliant thinker, but a lovely writer, and a clear guide to his staggeringly complex subject. He doesn't especially concentrate on artificial intelligence language experiments; or studies about what other primates understand, or the responses of pre-verbal human babies or speakers of obscure Amazonian languages, but they are all at hand when his arguments need them. Who doesn't love a twenty-three page bibliography?!
In some chapters, the linguistics geekery comes thick and fast, but it does serve to prove the points Pinker is making. I was particularly dazzled when he tried five different operations on a set of four verbs, showing how their grammatical variations point to different essential mental operations. By the same token, the distinction between singular ('pebble'), plural ('pebbles') and aggregate ('gravel'), interesting in itself, also gives us insight into the primitive mental arithmetic system which precedes formal mathematics both in individuals and in human history.
There's also a smattering of neuroanatomy. Did you know that the words we don't allow ourselves to say, either because they are either too sacred or too profane, are stored in a particular part of the brain, just so that we can stop ourselves saying them--which leaves them, in the case of certain brain mishaps, as the only language the sufferer has left?
On the anthropology front, there's a chapter about indirect speech, whose uses range from deferential politeness to threats and blackmail. "Politeness in lingustics does not refer to social etiquette, like eating your peas without using your knife, but to the countless adjustments that speakers make to avoid the equally countless ways that their listeners might be put off. People are very, very touchy, and speakers go to great lengths not to step on their toes." Whom do you call 'mister', and whom do you first-name? Whom do you sweet-talk, and whom do you strong-arm? When is perfect mutual knowledge not the ideal state of affairs? These concerns are universal to humans, but they take radically different forms across different cultures; Pinker is interested in how, and why.
And he's a great fan, and student, of metaphor. "Language, by its very design, would seem to be a tool with a well-defined and limited functionality....And yet metaphor provides us with a way to eff the ineffable. Perhaps the greatest pleasure that language affords is the act of surrendering to the metaphors of a skilled writer and thereby inhabiting the consciousness of another person." To read The Stuff of Thought is to partake of that great pleasure--Bon Appetit!

an e-mail-only edition, October 2008

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