The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature, By Steven Pinker
Sunday 22 June 2008
No doubt, as a reader of these pages, you have a sophisticated and keen appreciation for language; are sensitive to the appeal of an elegantly expressed thought and the ugliness of an ungrammatical sentence. You'll have noticed that the way a person uses language to frame their thoughts can tell us as much about the person as it does about their thoughts.
What the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has also noticed is how much even the very simplest sentence structures reveal about the way that all of our minds work. Why, for example, when you can say that you "sprayed water on the roses" as easily as you can say that you "sprayed the roses with water", might you say that you "poured water into the glass" but not that you "poured the glass with water"?
And exactly how, when we are acquiring language as children, do we distinguish between a verb such as "spray" that can be used as easily in what linguists call a container-locative sentence construction as in a content-locative construction, and an apparently similar verb such as "pour", that may not be? Well, it turns out that such grammatical quirks are not arbitrary; that the categorisation reflects the way in which the mind construes the physics and geometry of the real world (where does the water end up?), and conceptualises causality and human agency (you allow it to pour out, but cause it to spray) at a fundamental level.
This is psycholinguistics, the field where there is no such thing as "mere" semantics. It must be said that it does involve a fair amount of arcane terminology and hair-splitting. But Pinker's love for the nuts and bolts of language (he calls verbs his "little friends") is equally matched by his appreciation for, and command of, the way it's put together, making him the ideal guide to the subject. He also enjoys telling a good joke – and not only for what it reveals about cognition and sociocultural interactions.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits record low as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Germany sees 'visible rise' in support for far-right extremism in response to perceived 'Islamisation' of the West