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SCIENCE | LINGUISTICS

We Are What We Say

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Reviewed by Jonah Lehrer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

THE STUFF OF THOUGHT

Language as a Window into Human Nature

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By Steven Pinker

Viking. 499 pp. $29.95

Language comes so naturally to us that it's easy to believe there's some sort of intrinsic logic connecting the thing and its name, the signifier and the signified. In one of Plato's dialogues, a character named Cratylus argues that "a power more than human gave things their first names."

But Cratylus was wrong. Human language is an emanation of the human mind. A thing doesn't care what we call it. Words and their rules don't tell us about the world; they tell us about ourselves.

That's the simple premise behind Steven Pinker's latest work of popular science . According to the Harvard psychologist, people are "verbivores, a species that lives on words." If you want to understand how the brain works, how it thinks about space and causation and time, how it processes emotions and engages in social interactions, then you need to plunge "down the rabbit hole" of language. The quirks of our sentences are merely a portal to the mind.

In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker pitches himself as the broker of a scientific compromise between "linguistic determinism" and "extreme nativism." The linguistic determinists argue that language is a prison for thought. The words we know define our knowledge of the world. Because Eskimos have more nouns for snow, they are able to perceive distinctions in snow that English speakers cannot. While Pinker deftly discredits extreme versions of this hypothesis, he admits that "boring versions" of linguistic determinism are probably accurate. It shouldn't be too surprising that our choice of words can frame events, or that our vocabulary reflects the kinds of things we encounter in our daily life. (Why do Eskimos have so many words for snow? Because they are always surrounded by snow.) The language we learn as children might not determine our thoughts, but it certainly influences them.

Extreme nativism, on the other hand, argues that all of our mental concepts -- the 50,000 or so words in the typical vocabulary -- are innate. We are born knowing about carburetors and doorknobs and iPods. This bizarre theory, most closely identified with the philosopher Jerry Fodor, begins with the assumption that the meaning of words cannot be dissected into more basic parts. A doorknob is a doorknob is a doorknob. It only takes Pinker a few pages to prove the obvious, which is that each word is not an indivisible unit. The mind isn't a blank slate, but it isn't an overstuffed filing cabinet either.

So what is Pinker's solution? He advocates the middle ground of "conceptual semantics," in which the meaning of our words depends on an underlying framework of basic cognitive concepts. (As Pinker admits, he owes a big debt to Kant.) The tenses of verbs, for example, are shaped by our innate sense of time. Nouns are constrained by our intuitive notions about matter, so that we naturally parcel things into two different categories, objects and substances (pebbles versus applesauce, for example, or, as Pinker puts it, "hunks and goo"). Each material category comes with a slightly different set of grammatical rules. By looking at language from the perspective of our thoughts, Pinker demonstrates that many seemingly arbitrary aspects of speech, like that hunk and goo distinction, aren't arbitrary at all: They are byproducts of our evolved mental machinery.

Pinker tries hard to make this tour of linguistic theory as readable as possible. He uses the f-word to explore the topic of transitive and intransitive verbs. He clarifies indirect speech by examining a scene from "Tootsie," and Lenny Bruce makes so many appearances that he should be granted a posthumous linguistic degree. But profanity from Lenny Bruce can't always compensate for the cryptic vocabulary and long list of competing 'isms. Sometimes, the payoff can be disappointing. After a long chapter on curse words -- this book deserves an "explicit content" warning -- Pinker ends with the banal conclusion that swearing is "connected with negative emotion." I don't need conceptual semantics to tell me that.

The Stuff of Thought concludes with an optimistic gloss on the power of language to lead us out of the Platonic cave, so that we can "transcend our cognitive and emotional limitations." It's a nice try at a happy ending, but I don't buy it. The Stuff of Thought, after all, is really about the limits of language, the way our prose and poetry are bound by innate constraints we can't even comprehend. Flaubert was right: "Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity." *

Jonah Lehrer's first book, "Proust Was A Neuroscientist," was published last month.


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