Notes on ‘Stuff of Thought’ by Steven Pinker

Language is a manifestation of human thought. So it’s an effective tool to understanding how we perceive the world.

That’s the premise of the 2007 bestselling book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature by experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. His prodigious collection of popular books blending linguistics, thought and human nature have made him both a celebrity academic and a frequent source of scorn.

I appreciate his contributions and regardless of popular perception, I’ve enjoyed working through his catalogue. Below I capture some notes from finally getting through this one. Find 2007 reviews from the New York Times and the Guardian.

  • How do native speakers maintain such elaborate language rules, and transfer them to children, without knowing the rules themselves? We have a subtle understanding of our world, even if we don’t describe it in that way.
  • For example, “let” verbs (drip, slosh) and “cause” verbs (spray, pour) are different microclasses that allow different content/container locative options. 
  • “For” is the benefactive and “on” is the malefactive in English; they allow double-object construction in which only he or she receives something (“buy your fiancé a house” or “buy a house for your fiancé;” in contrast, though you can say “men open doors for women” you wouldn’t say “men open women doors” because she doesn’t receive the door.
  • Content locative and container locative verb options depend on the metaphorical physics of the mind, what we perceive a verb can do
  • Nativist (innatists) vs empiricists in language learning: how much of language is in born and just needs to be activated? This is at the heart of the Chomskyian debate on ‘universal grammar.
  • How much of language is innate or learned?
  • Radical pragmatics say there is really no one fixed word, but constantly shifting constructs understood like polysemy
  • Like other linguists, he dismisses the linguistic relativity of the Sapir-Whorf theory by noting most often we confuse causality (Inuit speakers have a lot of words for different kinds of snow because they interacted with it a lot, it’s not that they interact with it a lot because of the words. Pinker notes that similarly skiers and meteorologists in English use terms like sleet and hardpack to do the same because they’re close to it.
  • Also, the “thinking for speaking” portion of linguistic relativism that is focused on whether English speakers mix up whether they saw or heard something because our verbs don’t require that distinction isn’t really proven. Korean has verbs that clarify if an object is in a loose setting (fruit in a bowl) or tight (ring on a finger): do we English speakers confuse that distinction more?
  • Across all languages, listeners remember the gist better than exact sentences. Language is a vessel and so can be studied to approximate how our brains work —it’s not Whorfian idea that language makes what we can think
  • Count-mass distinction: Two-year olds in Sola-Carey-Spelke study choose “count” objects (like a copper tee) with count verbs by identifying similar shapes (even with different materials) but those with mass verbs like a mass of hair gel they will pair it with same substance even of different amount, not same size of different material like shaving cream. The idea is innately we understand count objects and Mass or aggregate of objects (170)
  • Why does language so often focus more on shapes than space? (Thousands of words in English for shape, just 60-80 prepositions for space)? Well Pinker says “ each language trades off expressiveness, precision, word length, and vocabulary size in a different way.” Spatial vocab is in them all.
  • Enlightenment era and other attempts at a perfect language never could eclipse what happens by millions of speakers together
  • William James calls the “specious present” the idea that we consider a little of the near past and near future. Ernst Poppel says “we take life three seconds at a time”
  • We use time orientation metaphors that use both a “moving observer” frame like “there’s trouble down the road,” and we use a “moving time” frame like “the time will come when computers are obsolete.”
  • Chinese time metaphors are more commonly up and down, later events being down. Likely a relic of the writing system. In Aymara, an Andean language, time metaphor puts the future behind us, since we can’t see it, and the past in front of us where we can
  • Metaphors are a major producer of neologisms: abstract ideas like “independence” has origins in a word that means “not being suspended,” which is a physical metaphor for support. Metaphors are even hidden in the origins of prepositions (like “in” which is used heavily to convey the metaphor that time is space) (236)
  • Conceptual metaphors as opposed to literary metaphors (Juliet is the sun)
  • Rabbi Baruch Korff was an early example of an “AWFUL,” Americans who figuratively use literally,” when he said: “ The American press has literally emasculated President Nixon.”
  • Metaphor is one argument for how man climbed out of the desolate inaudible beginning
  • Pinker says that Darwin noted that the larynx in humans evolved lower allowing us to speak but also more prone to choke. As I put it to a friend: It’s as if we the traded the ability to sing arias in exchange for being more likely to choke on a hot dog. (54 minutes into this video)
  • Different parts of the mind process space and time, proven by David Kemmerer who use people with certain brain damage who couldn’t understand the space prep position “he walked through the door” or “she’s at the corner” but could understand the metaphorical version like “he worked through the night” and “she arrived at 1:15pm”, and vice versa depending on the brain injury
  • Sadi Carnot in explaining his foundations of thermodynamics used a metaphor to compare the temperature difference and highest heat with the power of waterfall by height and amount of water. This metaphor (like the story that the first synthetic paintbrushes were improved thanks to an analogy to a pump that requires the paint to be pulled through) are examples of metaphor taking existing concepts and building on them: it’s language development taking place
  • Not just Proust-style reminders of sensation, memories conjure up surprising reminders of conceptual structure (type of movement ) that may be a primary source metaphor and an example of why they’re so important. Pinker called these “Schankian Remindings
  • Philosophers say there is a narrow and wide meaning for words. Narrow is what’s in our head and wide is in the world (290)
  • Pluto getting demoted from planet status was an issue of meanings. The word “planet” had a layman use and scientists debated what the scientific use should be. This reminds me of debates about the constitution and originallists.
  • As the philosopher Colin McGinn put it, meaning seems to “enable thought to exceed the bounds of acquaintance.” (295)
  • Sniglets from Douglas Adams and Barbara Wallraff’s Word Fugitives are examples of more actively creating words. These don’t appear to be particularly successful in coining words that last.
  • Fashion and baby names both follow cyclical, gentle sloping trend lines, not influenced by celebrities as much as we think. The celebrity is part of trend not cause. (390)
  • Pinker’s concept of the “euphemism treadmill” explains why we’re always cycling words for non-dominant groups, like the differently abled, races, exclamations etc (390)
  • Micromotives and Macrobehaviors Thomas Shelling in 1978 demonstrated how systems happen together unpredictably, like a noisy room or how names trend or fashion flows. This is what Tipping Point by Gladwell was getting at too (321)
  • Shakespeare: “But words are words. I never yet did hear / that the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.”
  • We assume all languages have swear words and many use words for sex and excrement (330)
  • Psycholinguists have three ways word connotations vary: good versus bad, weak versus strong and active versus passive
  • Aphasia victims can still swear; swearing comes from a different part of our brain (334) basal ganglia part of brain may store
  • HL Mencken: “puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”
  • Lenny Bruce’s “Aw fuck you pop” bit among his edgy bits that got him sued (346)
  • Allan and Burridge estimate that English has accumulated more than 800 expressions for copulation, 1000 for a penis, 1200 for a vagina, and 2000 for a wanton woman (350)
  • Rude verbs for sex are transitive (fuck, bang); polite euphemistic verbs for sex or intransitive and convey partnership (sex with; be intimate with) (355)
  • For taboo words connotation matters more than syntax. The development of “ungrammatical imprecations and exclamations” often flows first from blasphemy to more general swear words that may be grammatically nonsensical. In short: Why do we say “I don’t give a shit” or “Holy fuck”? Because they were ways we continued to show exclamation as the grammatically sensible religious origins of those phrases lost their punch. (“I don’t give a damn” would have originally meant that like it’s not even worth the threat of damnation) (358) Damn you evolves into Fuck You
  • Erving Goffman researched how our exclamations are in part about showing we are sane and competent (explaining why we reverse course while walking; saying yuck at a bad taste or whoops when we drop something). Different languages have different but similar versions (367)
  • Though origins may have come from response-cry theory of hardwired rage circuitry they’ve evolved into conventions with native speakers (part of the transition from primate calls to human language)
  • Shakespeare: “You taught me language and my profit on it is I now know how to curse.”
  • Paul Grice “Logic and Conversation” part of linguistics clarifying that we bend spoken language differently than written (376)
  • Uptalk is an active trend toward social cohesion and politeness, it’s accommodative. Back in 1993 James Gorman wrote about his beginning to use this intonation
  • Polite deference in language like indirect making a question out of a command (You wouldn’t perhaps sell your chicken, would you?) shows up in 25+ languages from Tzeltal in Mayan Mexico to Tamil in Sri Lanka (385) Brown and Levinson
  • “Saving face” with polite language is an extension of dominance hierarchies, argues Pinker (405)
  • Market economies may not be naturally occurring phenomenon but an invention that we have honed over centuries: “people all over the world think that every object has an intrinsic fair price (as opposed to being worth whatever people are willing to pay for it at the time), that middlemen are parasites (despite the service they render in gathering goods from distant places and making them conveniently available to buyers), and that charging interest is immoral (despite the fact that money is more valuable to people sometimes than others);” this is similar to well functioning corporations that use fiduciary responsibility not familial relationships to hire or even to representative democracies that strive to not be ruled by a strongman with military but by policy and narrative. We’ve developed these culturally over time. Darwinism is also unlike our nature (concepts of emergence like language in which many decisions and outcomes drive mass trends no one could predict)
  • Goffman writes that all conversations are played to an imagined audience, one reason we couch comments indirectly (417) Pinker also likes control of mutual knowledge as another reason for indirect speech
  • World on Fire by Amy Chua argues that capitalism may not work in all cultures where middleman niches (which Thomas Sowell has always been criticized) filled by ethnic groups may drive hatred. (434)