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Pinker’s Study of Language Has the Right ‘Stuff’

"The Stuff of Thought" - By Steven Pinker (Viking Adult) - Out Now

By Juli Min, Crimson Staff Writer

Handcuffs, lipstick, lingerie, a straitjacket, a martini glass, and a naked woman have conspicuously snuck onto the cover of a science book. Something is afoot.

Looking at the fluorescent assortment of seemingly random images on the jacket of Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought,” one gets a sense of what to expect from this charming and provocative investigation into language.

For its author, language is a reflection of our conception of the world—and, consequently, human nature.

Fittingly, Pinker uses cultural references, sexy verbs, and toilet allusions to describe the linguistic application of verbs and metaphors in the context of culture and humanity. Not only does Pinker have a lesson in psycholinguistics jammed into the book, but also a study of life, culture, and modernity.

In this attempt at inclusiveness, Pinker begins his book with what he calls “the most significant political and intellectual event of the twenty-first century so far”—the events of September 11, 2001. But Pinker somehow manages to take a refreshing look at that weighty, well-worn subject. Was the catastrophe just one incident, or two? How does one explicate the event? And perhaps more importantly, should the leaseholder of the Twin Towers get reimbursed $3.5 billion for one destructive event, or $7 billion for two? On this note, Pinker reminds us, “There is nothing ‘mere’ about semantics!”

Pinker’s goals for the book are lofty. “We will consider whether the signs of intelligent design in the English language imply a corresponding intelligence in every English speaker,” he writes, promising to show how “design quirks” in basic thoughts “give rise to fallacies, follies, and foibles in the way that people reason about the conundrums of modern life.” He does all of this while quoting Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, and making as many sexual references as possible.

Pinker’s lengthy and detailed categorization of “his little friends”—verbs—plods along, reading like a lecture in Linguistics 101. There are moving and changing verbs (brush, dribble, shake), verbs of having, knowing, and helping (bring, tell, fix), and verbs of acting, intending, and causing (march, come, kill). Verbs in their contexts determine a specific understanding of intention and situation, Pinker reminds us. After all, in English, “juice dripped from the peach” is different than “the peach was dripping with juice.”

Though a bit pedantic, the claims Pinker makes about words and meaning are logical and well-founded, and his nerdy enthusiasm for verbs is enough to sustain a degree of interest. “Our trip down the rabbit hole has taken us to a semantic wonderland,” Pinker gushes.

His articulate discussion of space, time, and causality exhibits a wide range of knowledge on topics seemingly unrelated, yo-yo-ing between Immanuel Kant and comic strips. Pinker also displays his aptitude for smooth literary timing and phrasing, framing his chapter on the semantics of causation with images and references to time, clocks, and categorical imperatives.

The chapters about the evolution and importance of metaphor and the fashion of naming are delightfully entertaining. Pinker claims that naming connects a being to a reality outside of him- or herself, thrusting one into society, into a cycle of pointing and replicating, and that the process of naming reflects the paradoxical social desires to simultaneously fit in and be unique.

Pinker’s sexy study of the semantics of swearing is sure to attract the most attention. For him, there seems to be a cathartic, natural, and even intellectually stimulating use for swearing, and his analysis of it is as enlightening as it is jaw-droppingly provocative.

The book ends with a chapter called “Escaping the Cave,” which seems at first to be an arrogant, all-encompassing account of human behavior and thought. Pinker writes his psychological and anthropological account of what human beings are like, every paragraph beginning with a phrase such as “human beings think this way...” or “human beings are such...” After six pages of this repetition, one is left asking: is Steven Pinker not a human being? Who is he to make these claims about human life and experience in such a detached, dispassionate way?

But alas, he is one step ahead. Pinker reassures the reader, writing, “any inventory of human nature is bound to cause some apprehension in hopeful people, because it would seem to set limits on the ways we can think, feel, and interact.”

For Pinker, language is the best means by which humans “escape” the limitations of their Platonic cave. Pinker sees language in every facet of life. Those vibrant, sexy images on the cover are symbols of culture, technology, and human existence. In the end, his book really is an insightful study of language through life and life through language.

—Staff writer Juli Min can be reached at kmin@fas.harvard.edu.

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