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Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. He grew up in Montreal and earned his BA from McGill and his PhD[…]

Cracking the almighty verb.

Question: How do you contribute?

Steven Pinker: I’d like to think that I’ve made a few empirical discoveries that will … that people will continue to find interesting and important. 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 tried to lay out the alphabet of ideas out of which complex ideas like those behind a verb meaning are composed. 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? I hope that I’ve advanced the discussion a bit. I think in science it’s not reasonable to have an ambition of becoming immortal or of making a mark that’s associated with you. It’s more like you’re really contributing something to this enormous stream of knowledge. And realistically you hope to affect it downstream in significant ways, but your own contribution may not be associated with your name. It will be a combination of things that you actually created, experiments with discoveries, books and papers, the graduate students that you trained, the undergraduates that you influenced indirectly, the ideas that people may have taken from your work with out crediting you. Realistically I think the most one can hope for is this diffuse, but one hopes positive influence rather than some statue in the park with your name on it. We know what people do with statues. We ignore them. They’re meant to immortalize people, but no one really cares … no one actually reads who the person is or reads about them. I think it’s good to have that model in mind in terms of scientific contributions.

Recorded On: 6/13/07