Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dwelling in the Details: The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

Author Steven Pinker

I’m often told I dwell too much on words. During many an impassioned discussion I’ve heard people scoff “Semantics!” with a dismissive wave of the hand, as if I’m being too picky about the details (although what they’re often frustrated by is, in fact, pragmatics...but, well, you get the idea). But why not focus on the details, on accuracy? Human language can offer such a glorious range of nuance and character, and it provides one of the most crucial of links between our individual worlds and thoughts. Though not without their limitations, words form so much of our daily life. Yet we often lose sight of exactly how language shapes us, or how we shape it. As Linguist Steven Pinker rightly puts it, language helps to form, and is crucially formed by, The Stuff of Thought.

The book serves as Pinker’s third volume in two separate trilogies: one about language and the mind (which includes The Language Instinct and Words and Rules) and another on human psychology (featuring How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate). Each of these titles themselves make metaphorical, yet bold statements about the nature of our species. The Stuff of Thought rounds out each series with yet another declaration, confidently stating the ways in which human nature gets reflected in our language. Pinker argues that the linguistic tools we use, often without thinking, show us a great deal about ourselves, from our mental models to our culture to naming conventions.

As for what’s in a name, Pinker describes early on how he “had to stop telling people that [The Stuff of Thought] was about ‘language and thought’ because they all assumed it was about how language shaped thought – the only relation between the two that occurred to them”. His book instead tackles several different interactions between our words and our world. Even the seemingly mundane details of language prove intriguing to Pinker, and while not usually opaque in his descriptions, he often relies on the tools of linguistics to pry apart the most complex of examples. He uses this technical terminology – and somewhat excessive polysyllabic verbiage – without treating the reader like they need everything explained. Now I don't object to occasionally turning to Google (or that 'dictionary' thing that collects more and more dust these days) in order to broaden my vocabulary, but some of Pinker’s inconsistent prose still left me a bit bogged down. Some sections proved clear and insightful, while others seemed muddied by overly-wordy arguments that by the end still felt questionable. Still, since The Stuff of Thought seeks to appeal to word-lovers, this shouldn't prove too much of a stumble for most. If words and the structure of language aren't of particular interest, then this likely isn't the book for you. But if, like me, you find metaphors riveting and give half a damn about the history of cursing, then pray read on.

Pinker starts this volume off with a rather heavy discussion of the way our language frames our perception, utilizing the 9/11 attacks as a rather jarring start to his first chapter. Though a little more exploitative than I usually care for, he makes the blunt point that the way we discuss our most delicate of topics can mark the difference in how we perceive things like time and causality; between one attack and a pair; between a certain American President learning that Saddam Hussein sought uranium from Africa and knowing that he had weapons of mass destruction. These are the earliest among a long list of concrete examples from which Pinker draws, almost to excess. Even in portions laden with technical jargon, Pinker seeks a balance through samples and demonstrations of the various rules he compares. The most effective (and affective) of these comes in the chapter "The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television", in reference to a provocatively funny George Carlin routine on swearing. If you are easily offended, please shield your eyes and skip ahead, or at least avoid reading this chapter on the train, where the person beside you might spot several long lists of expletives, leaving them to wonder why you’re reading about syntactic ambiguity and fucking in public. In addition, the use of a few careful diagrams bring additional clarity to more abstract linguistic concepts; the book may well have benefited from more of these. Perhaps sensing a need to round out his more weighty passages, Pinker also breaks up his text with comic strip panels, where somewhat more comical authors have made keen observations about the pitfalls of language.

While it doesn’t shy away from referencing other languages, the book centres around English, with examples from other tongues brought in for support. Metaphor and tense are each pillars of the English language and get examined accordingly. Yet this discussion in particular would have benefited from drawing from a larger pool of languages, as the different cultural implications Pinker does invoke prove to be some of the book’s most compelling parts. In one example he refers to Tzaltel, a language that lacks words for ‘left’ and ‘right’ but instead indicates spacial position through ‘upslope’ and ‘downslope’, whose speakers are endowed with a keen sense of north and south. While such drastic examples as this appear to be rare, they serve to exemplify the manners in which our minds categorize objects, and how language can reflect both individual experiences and universal qualities.

As The Stuff of Thought attests, “there is nothing ‘mere’ about semantics!”. If you think everyday speech warrants a closer look, or you’re simply fascinated by human interaction, then Pinker provides an interesting, if somewhat inconsistent tour through some of the highlights of language’s role in our lives. The book's final chapter ruminates on the limitations of language, a fairly appropriate conclusion that I felt could easily have been expanded. This may sound like I’m being particular again, but that may just be the way I think.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently employed in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

No comments:

Post a Comment