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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Sunday Magazine
The Interview

Steven Pinker

By John Koch, Boston Globe

Among your ideas about language, which are most controversial?
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.
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 that?
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.


 
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