Steven PinkerBy John Koch, Boston
Among your ideas about language, which are most
One, still fiercely debated, is that language
acquisition has an innate, genetic basis. Another is that prescriptive
grammar, the rules of the copy editor and English teacher, are in large
part arbitrary, will change, and in some cases ought to be flouted. Some
constructions are often the result of superstition more than grammatical
analysis. The prohibition against split infinitives and the rule against
ending a sentence with a preposition are just folklore passed down from
English teachers, but no good writer would obey them _ they lead to clumsy
prose and have no basis in the logic of English. Also, I argue that
language is not the same as thought, that we don't think in English but
use it to express our thoughts to others.
What's the medium of thought if not language?
We use language
as a kind of scratch pad, just as when you do mathematical calculations,
and you've got to store the intermediate products on bits of paper. The
ideas themselves are couched in something much more abstract _
philosophers call it ``mentalese.'' That is what you remember when you
read a paragraph and remember its content. The fact that you can take away
something more abstract than the verbatim sentences shows that there must
be some medium of the mind.
Talk about the distinctive nature of English.
probably has the largest vocabulary of any language, largely because it's
a language of immigrants. It's been absorbing vocabulary from other
languages starting in 1066, when England was invaded by William the
Conqueror, who brought Norman French with him. Thousands of words are
originally French, added to what is basically a Germanic language. English
also absorbed thousands of words from Latin because of the influence of
Renaissance scholars and the church. And because England had a worldwide
empire, it absorbed words from the languages of India, North America, and
so on. As a result, we have the world's thickest dictionaries.
Is that good?
That's a great thing. It's raw material for
prose and poetry and rhetoric and oratory and wordplay. It also allows us
to be more concise, because if you have the mot juste, you don't have to
use a circumlocution. A document in English translated into French is 20
percent longer _ that's the price they pay for having an academy that
keeps out words. Also, English is, in a sense, two languages, basically
German and Latin, which means that we have alternative ways of expressing
the same idea with different connotations and rhythms. The older, Germanic
vocabulary tends to be monosyllabic, good five-cent words. The Latinate
and French vocabulary is polysyllabic and a bit stuffy at its worst but
often sophisticated and precise at its best. It multiplies the options.
Your new book focuses solely on verbs. What's up with
And this is not just a book on verbs but on irregular verbs.
Science often takes a model organism or a case study to analyze in depth,
such as geneticists' choosing the fruit fly so that everyone is studying
the same organism and can pool their discoveries. In the case of irregular
verbs, the common error of children using them in a regular form _ I
eated, I goed, I holded _ captures the essence of language, which is using
rules unconsciously to generate brand-new linguistic structures to express
brand-new ideas. They're not just repeating what they hear but are trying
to crack the code of English. This one error implies that the essence of
language is the ability to spin out word combinations using a fixed list
of rules and words. What I try to show in the book is, by cranking up the
microscope on irregular verbs, you can understand many of the phenomena of
language, such as how languages change over time, what languages have in
common and how they vary, where language is in the brain, how language
relates to the rest of the mind.
Some critics call you an unreconstructed Darwinian and more
polemicist than scientist.
Everything in books such as How the Mind
Works is backed by data from the lab or sociological surveys or
anthropological field studies. Nothing in it is my own reverie or fantasy.
And I don't think that everything about the mind is an adaptation in the
biologist's sense of something that helped our ancestors make babies. Some
of the most monumental human activities may be evolutionary byproducts
without any biological function, such as dreams, art, music, religion.
You obviously have a highly active mind. Any difficulty decelerating
or turning it off?
I do. When I'm writing a book, I can't rest
until I finish. I will typically write until 3 in the morning, seven days
a week, until I'm done. I'll try to set off blocks of time, like a
sabbatical or a summer, in which I can get up in the morning and write
till I go to bed. I worked on How the Mind Works for virtually an entire
year _ I took off a month to get married
What do you do for escape?
Bicycling and photography. They
allow me to have obsessions not related to work. My wife and I discovered
tandem bicycling last spring. Rather than staying up all night figuring
out irregular verbs, I can ponder how to shave 35 grams off our tandem
bicycle. The lighter the bike, the more fun it is to ride.