The Stuff of Thought: Language as a window into human nature, By Steven Pinker

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The Independent Culture

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.