July 23rd, 2010


July Books 14) The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker

I was rather unimpressed by the Pinker book I read last year, but this seemed to be a more coherent assembly of facts and theories relating to linguistics, psychology and philosophy. I'm afraid I still wasn't gripped by it, but that is more to do with my own preferences for intellectual exercise than any fault of the book; I can't get very excited by deep philosophical questions, and psychology has never been an attractive field for me.

There were some points of interest.
  • I was startled to read of an old family friend making her reputation by observing and writing up the process by which her daughters learned to speak, and indeed nervously wondered if I too had been an unwitting subject of her research. But on reflection, by the time we knew the family her daughters were well past the stage of language acquisition (in English anyway, though for all I know she may have also exploited the linguistic consequences of their subsequent emigration to the Netherlands).

  • Good quote on linguistic determinism: "The idea that Eskimos pay more attention to varieties of snow because they have more words for it is so topsy-turvy (can you think of any other reason why Eskimos might pay attention to snow?) that it's hard to believe it would be taken seriously were it not for the feeling of cleverness it affords at having transcended common sense."

  • A joke about Eastern European aristocrats having a drinking contest where the winner is the one who can think of the biggest number. After long thought the first one says, "Three." The second one ponders long and hard, and finally says, "You win."

  • But the reason that peoples who count 'one, two, many' don't have larger numbers is that thye don't really need them; Pinker quotes a researcher who finds that the Yanomanö warrior knows each of his arrows individually and so does not count them.

  • Rude words for sex are transitive (take a direct object); polite words for sex are intransitive (require a preposition) - "John bonked Mary"; "John made love to Mary". I wonder how true this is in languages other than English.

  • Politeness strategies in many languages use similar strategies to make direct questions more acceptable - he gives an example from Tzeltal, "You wouldn't perhaps sell your chicken, it was said" - similar in concept to English "You wouldn't be selling your chicken by any chance, would you?"

That last point was rather unusual in that Pinker for once drew from languages other than English for his conclusions, and I would have enjoyed the book more if he had done so more often. I'm glad to have read a better book by him than How The Mind Works, but I won't go out of my way to track his stuff down in future.