Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
Pinker: What I basically try to do is understand human nature, how the mind works, what makes us tick. What are the patterns of thought, and emotion and motivation that characterize our species? I focus on language partly because you can’t make a living out of studying human nature. It’s just too big a topic. You’ve got to pick something tractable to study. For me it has been language, and indeed for much of my career one little corner of language, namely regular and irregular verbs. And I have my reasons for focusing on that particular corner. I think it sheds light on larger questions about what makes the mind work. But language as a general topic is, I think, a good entrée into human nature for a number of reasons. It’s distinctively human. If you’re interested in general in what makes humans unlike mice and birds, language is a pretty good place to start not only because of language itself – the fact that we make noise with our mouths in order to get ideas across, but because language has to be fine tuned for the kinds of thoughts and the kinds of social relationships that humans want to share and negotiate with one another. So it’s a window into human nature. It’s also figured into debates on human nature, perhaps most famously with Chomsky in the late 1950s using language as a way to rehabilitate the idea of innate mental structure, something that was virtually taboo in the 1950s. He said language was a very good candidate for something that is innately and uniquely human. So it’s an opening wedge for the idea that important parts of the mind are innately structured. It’s also a prime case of mental computation. It’s very hard to make sense of language, of our ability to string words into new combinations, sentences that other people have never heard before but can very quickly understand for the first time without appealing to the idea that we have a mental algorithm, a set of rules, or a recipe or a formula that picks words out of a memory store and strings them together in combinations where the order, as well as the choice of words is meaningful. So language sheds light on the idea that the mind is a computational system.
Question: Why is language veiled?
Pinker: My main preoccupation today is using language as a window into human nature. I’ve studied language in the past as an example of human computation. What are the kinds of simple operations of look up in combination that the mind is capable of? How is language structured? What I’m turning to now is the interface between language and the rest of the mind – how language can illuminate our social relationships. For example, why is so much of language use veiled, or indirect, or done via innuendo rather than people blurting out exactly what they mean? Why do I say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great?” instead of “Give me the salt.” Why does someone make a sexual overture in terms of, “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” rather than, “Do you want to have sex?” Why are threats so often veiled you know, “Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.” Given that the listener knows exactly what the speaker had in mind, it’s not that anyone is fooled by this charade; but nonetheless some aspect of the social relationship seems to be preserved if the request is slipped in between the lines. I’m interested in what that says about human relationships, about hypocrisy and taboo. Also what it says about the kinds of relationships we have like dominance versus intimacy, and communality versus exchange and reciprocity. Just to be concrete, why do you say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great.” Well in issuing an imperative, you’re kind of changing the relationship. You’re turning it into one of dominance. You’re saying to a friend or to a stranger, “I’m going to act as if I can boss you around and presuppose your compliance.” You may not want to move the relationship in that direction. At the same time you want the damn salt. So if you say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great,” it’s such a non sequitor the intelligence of the listener can figure out that it really is a request. But both of you know that you haven’t actually turned the relationship into a superior-inferior. I think that’s the key to understanding all of these. That the sexual overture, the veiled threat, the veiled bribe and so on are ways of preserving one of several kinds of relationships at the same time as we transact the business of life such as requests, such as sexual overtures that might be inconsistent with the relationship that we have with the person. So it’s in a way of using language as a way of doing social psychology.
Question: Why do we use metaphors?
Pinker: I’m also interested in the effective memory on language. Why is so much language metaphorical? Not in terms of poetic ornamentation. We don’t even realize that they’re metaphorical. We say something like, “He moved the meeting from 3:00 to 4:00,” we’re using the metaphor of time as a line, as a spacial dimension of a meeting as a thing, and a rescheduling as causing emotion. If we say, “I have to force myself to be polite,” without realizing it using a metaphor of our natural inclination as inertia; a change in inclination as the application of force; and indeed as conflicting tendencies as different object or people inside our skull being shoved around. It’s almost hard to find an example of language that’s not metaphorical. So what does that say about the human mind? Does it say that we actually can never think abstractly, but deep down we always have little cartoons in our head of little pucks being slid around on the ice, or people shoving each other inside the skull? Or does it mean that we really do think abstractly, but that deep in the midst of history when the first coiner of expressions like “force so and so to be nice” or “move the meeting” came about, they needed some kind of verbiage. And so they cooked up a metaphor on the spot. It’s better than saying ________ if you can say force, because at least some people might have some chance of knowing what you’re talking about. But ever since we’d been repeating the metaphor dumbly, and we really do think abstractly, that’s an interesting question about what makes us tick inspired by language, and I’d like to get some insight into it.
Topic: The Almighty Verb
Pinker: I did what I think is, and for a long time to will be the most exhaustive study of one aspect of child language development. The fact that kids make errors like, “We holded the baby rabbits,” and “The alligator go kerplunk.” Or they add a regular suffix like “-ed” to an irregular verb like “hold” or “hear” or “stick”, producing errors like “sticked” and “teared” and “holded”. I analyzed 20,000 of those forms from computer transcripts of children developing language, and developed a theory of why kids make that error, how they outgrow it, what it shows about language. The reason to obsess over a tiny little topic like that is that it’s a nice illustration of children’s creativity in acquiring language. The essence of language is that you aren’t restricted to a fixed list of messages that you’ve memorized and then you regurgitate like a parrot; but rather you recreate . . . recombine elements to create new messages. Every sentence that we utter is a brand new sentence, but it’s rather hard to study the process of kids making up new sentences. When a kid says something like “sticked”, or “teared”, or “heared”, or “holded”, that’s a tiny example of recombination that I think is the engine that powers language as a whole. The act of children making an error like that I think is a way of catching them in the act of doing something that makes language powerful, mainly combining things by rules. And in trying to understand that one phenomenon, I hope that we – my students and I – shed light on the process of linguistic generativity or creativity in general. I also try very hard to crack the code of what verbs means and how that influences how we use them in sentences. The verb is, in a way, the chassis of the sentence. Once you pick the verb, it’s got slots that the rest of the sentence is built around – the subject, the object, the indirect object, prepositional objects and so on. So knowing how the verb works tells you a lot about how the sentence works. And how the verb works depends on what the verb means. You might think how could you ever get a handle on something as nebulous as what a verb means. But I’d like to think that I cracked a lot of that code. What’s the difference between a verb like “to fill”, and a verb like “to pour”, and a verb like “to load”? They’re not just video images in the head of someone pouring, and filling, and loading, but rather they have an anatomy. They’re built out of parts – parts like to cause, to move, means versus end, let versus cause. I’d like to think that in addition to making some empirical discoveries – how little things work, for me in the case of language – I hope to have helped put things together. There’s so much of science and scholarship that consists of hyper specialized efforts. Necessarily have to pick one topic now because it’s retractable. It’s something that a single person can hope to make headway on in a lifetime. But when you do that, you also lose sight of the big picture. If you study _____ about irregular verbs, or experiments on word recognition, you lose sight of a question like, “What’s language for? How does it work?” A question that let’s say a lay person quite reasonably might ask, but which most specialists are completely ill-equipped to answer because they necessarily have to focus on a particular phenomenon.
I’d like to think that I have also helped draw the big picture in the case of language, the idea that language works by an interplay between memorized units that we call words and rules for combining them; and that the reason that we have language is that we are a species that lives off social cooperation and know-how; and that language is an evolutionary adaptation that multiples the power of technological know-how by allowing us to share it; and that allows us to negotiate relationships. So that is a kind of nutshell description of how language works and why we have it. And I think it’s not so obvious that it’s helpful for someone to draw the picture in such broad brushstrokes. And I’d like to think that I’ve done the same . . . or helped to do something like that for the human mind. How does the mind work? What is a human mind for? The idea that the mind is a system of organs of computation – that is, information processing sub systems that evolved by natural selection to allow us to figure out how the world works and figure out how other people work as a survival strategy for homo sapiens. It is a general idea, but it does help to make sense of the whole shebang. I think it offers me some potential of a satisfying answer as to why we have a mind and what it does. So both at the microscopic end of how irregular verbs work and why kids make errors on them, and a macroscopic view of what is language, what is the mind?