Psychologist Steven Pinker studies the interface between language and human computation, which he argues is the key to understanding human nature.
Question: Why study language?
Steven 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.
Steven 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?
Steven 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.