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Language as a Window into Human Nature

by Steven Pinker

Pub Date: Sept. 11th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-670-06327-7
Publisher: Viking

Consider the lexicon, Watson: The words a person uses tell you who that person is.

Language shapes thought; language, at least in some senses, is thought. How words relate to thoughts is the object of semantics, which, writes Pinker (Psychology/Harvard; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, 2002, etc.), “is about the relation of words to reality—the way that speakers commit themselves to a shared understanding of the truth, and the way their thoughts are anchored to things and situated in the world.” Of course, there is one planet but many different worlds, and so there are many different truths. Or are there? Pinker considers many cases, including the one in which George Bush lied—maybe—when he claimed that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Learn, Pinker points out, is a factive verb: It requires a degree of certainty that does not attend to semantically allied verbs such as think, so that when Bush used it, “he was committing himself to the proposition that the uranium seeking actually took place, not that the British government believed it did.” Were we more certain about what goes inside Bush’s brain, we could call it a lie pure and simple, but the brain is a curious thing, capable of equating and uniting “events that have nothing in common,” such as, perhaps, reality and politics. Pinker’s narrative makes for an advanced textbook in semantics and linguistic theory, and none too lightly worn; each page is a challenge, full of packed sentences that require careful reading (“Several experiments have shown that people distinguish causal chains that exemplify different force-dynamic interactions even when they are logically equivalent”). Yet Pinker writes clearly and has an eye for meaningful real-world examples such as the “Prenup Paradox” to bring his points home.

Call it continuing education for brain owners, an instruction manual on how thought works—and how to think better.