You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

My Photo
Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker's book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature presents an investigation into how our use of language reveals how our mind works. Pinker brings a solid view of language as a social construct and function of our cognitive processes.

Pinker starts out by discussing the nature of verbs and how we use them. Verbs illustrate an underlying conceptual framework of how we view the world. Sometimes verbs can have multiple meanings, as in "Load the wagon" versus "Load the hay into the wagon". In this instance the wagon's state is being changed from unloaded to loaded whereas the hay is moving and not changing state. Likewise you can say "Pour the water into the glass" but not "Pour the glass with water". These similar kinds of verbs break down when you try to use them in similar situations, and this shows the fine grades of semantics involved in language.

He then contrasts the concepts of Extreme Nativism and Radical Pragmatics. Extreme Nativism is the theory that most definitions of words are innately understood, that we have a pre-existing set of concepts that we draw on in language. Radical Pragmatics is the nearly opposite theory that "a permanently existing conceptual structure underlying the meaning of a word is also as mythical as the Jack of Spades, because people can use a word to mean almost anything, depending on the context." He talks about Linguistic Determinism, which is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the extreme, saying that humans cannot conceive of or communicate concepts that are not in their language. Pinker rejects all three theories as extreme and proposes a sort of compromise in conceptual semantics, "that word senses are mentally represented as expressions in a richer and more abstract language of thought."

Pinker then discusses how our words break down concepts into discrete pieces. This reveals our inner formation of the world into causes and events, causers and recipients. The most interesting section I found to be the chapter titled "The Metaphor Metaphor," where he talks about how much of language is metaphoric, even if the original images are no longer evoked. Metaphors build on each other, creating a rich web of meaning. He answers the question of why the idea of "moving up" a meeting can be ambiguous: because our concept of time is either of proceeding along a line or of a river moving past, so "moving up" can mean advancing in either direction, towards or away from us.

There is a whole chapter given to profanity and its source. Part of it is rooted deep in the amygdala, a primitive part of our brains. Some people who have lost their ability to express themselves with language can still curse, and the nervous tics from Tourette's syndrome can cause uncontrollable urges to curse. The reason curses are perceived as shocking is that they are forcing negative images on others. I must admit that this section was more enlightening (and entertaining) than I imagined it would be.

This book provided a good deal of insight into how our languages are structured around our cognitive processes. Languages have built into them logical frameworks that we use without thinking about it. Language is an innate ability of humans, but there is much discussion over how much is built-in and how much is generated from society. Pinker does a great job illuminating features of English and contrasting it with other languages. I was a little puzzled at his starting with the book with a discussion of verbs, but it turned out to be most enlightening. Pinker focuses his attention on places where language breaks down, where words become ambiguous and illuminate their underlying abstractions. A

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home