Friday, November 30, 2007

The Stuff of Thought

This was really interesting. The author is a professor of psychology at Harvard. He has written a number of other books about language and how it works. This one was about how language reflects how our brains work.
I felt like I really learned a lot about the ordering of language. The way he groups categories of nouns, verbs, etc. according to how they are used and how they can be formed into sentences makes much more sense than the traditional ways of organizing language that you find in a prescriptive grammar, or that we all learned in school. In fact, one of my lowest grades was in my required English grammar class at BYU.
I don't think I'm going to go into how cause and effect seems to be mirrored in language, and not just English, but many others. Mostly because I would have to read the book again in order to properly summarize it. So if you are interested, look this one up in your own library.
There was one point I really liked. He has a chapter discussing swearing; why, how, common themes among all languages. One point he made that I had wondered about was why swearing is so forceful and unpleasant. He said that when a person swears, he forces anyone in hearing range to think about something disgusting or extremely unpleasant. It is a means of social aggression, which is why young men, in the "swagger" phase, are notorious for using it. He also said something which I have thought for a long time, but he said it so nicely:

Language has often been called a weapon, and people should be mindful about
where to aim it and when to fire. The common denominator of taboo words is
the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and it's worth considering
how often one really wants one's audience to be reminded of excrement, urine,
and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form, intended only to keep the
listener's attention, the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs
in the ribs. They are annoying to the listener, and a confession by the
speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending
to. It's all the more damning for writers, who have the luxury of choosing
their words off-line from the half-million-word phantasmagoria of the English

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Steven Pinker. Viking. 2007

1 comment:

jenny said...

That review made me very interested in this book. In fact I'm on the cognition and language chapter in my psychology class. Thanks for the quote on swearing. What he said makes sense. I've always wondered why these random words are so jarring. Being a Stay at home mom I'm not around it much so it really effects me.
The world is so full of good info there isn't enough time to read and understand it all!