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AUTHOR STEVEN PINKER is on a 27-city tour, doing his thing in towns and cities across America to the delight of his wide fan base. If this sounds like a rock star's tour, Pinker is a bit of a rock star, insofar as a professor of psychology at Harvard can claim the title. ("Without the groupies," he said self-deprecatingly.)
The author of five trade science books "The Language Instinct," "How the Mind Works," "Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language," "The Blank Slate" and now, "The Stuff of Thought" is no stranger to the New York Times bestseller list for works that shine light into our speech and our selves.
The subtitle of "The Stuff of Thought" is "Language as a Window Into Human Nature," and its goal is to examine the way our minds and emotions are expressed through language how we learn it, how we use it and what we really mean when open our mouths. In eight tidy chapters, Pinker covers an astonishing range, from verb acquisition to time and space to metaphor in political life to baby names, expletives and euphemism as social lubricant.
Oh, and with plenty of jokes, cartoons and witty asides along the way.
Pinker is one of the most lucid and entertaining science writers alive many of them, as you learn in the book, named Steve which may help account for his popularity.
He discusses "How Everyday Words Reveal Who We Are" at a Smithsonian Resident Associates lecture this evening at the National Academy of Sciences. In the meantime, Pinker recently slipped out of an Acela quiet car to talk about "The Stuff of Thought."
» EXPRESS: It seems that this book is a perfect melding of your two
subjects language and psychology. Was your intent to fuse these
» PINKER: Yeah, that's basically it. I'm a psychologist, not really a linguist, so I'm really interested in how the mind works. And this time, it's about using the meanings of words and how we use language as a way of doing psychology I was looking at our thoughts, our emotions and our social relationships.
» EXPRESS: The chapter on the emotions and psychology behind swearing
is fascinating. We all think we know why we swear, and what's appropriate when,
but it's much more complicated.
» PINKER: When it comes to swearing, I think you have to account both for why your grandmother is offended by swearing and we're all sometimes offended by swearing but also why it's so tempting. Even people who claim not to be offended by swearing will be offended if someone uses the n-word, the word so bad you can't name it. And even politically correct people who support swearing on television do not support use of the n-word on television. People say "ass" on television now, which you couldn't do 10 or 15 years ago, and on cable you can say [words you can say on cable], but you can't say [the n-word].
» EXPRESS: And we can't put many of those
words in the paper, either.
» PINKER: It's true, isn't it? And it's often that just using a few dashes or asterisks somehow makes the word more offensive. A couple of years ago, there was a book called "On Bullshit" by a pretty high-faluting Princeton philosopher ...
» EXPRESS: We interviewed him, too.
» PINKER: And I bet you printed "Bullshit" as "B-------"
» EXPRESS: Actually, we discussed it and went with the full word,
since it was
the title and the subject.
» PINKER: Right. I don't actually swear, in my case, but I talk about swearing.
» EXPRESS: Reading about how we use language makes one more
self-conscious than reading about psychology. I think it's because psychology
leaves room for us to continue to believe ourselves unique, but language does
not. We all use it, so we must all be driven by the same motivations and
emotions. No one wants to be a ganglion-robot.
» PINKER: There's a chapter where I talk about politeness and other forms of indirect speech, and ever since, every time someone I know asks me a favor says, "If you can sign this form, that would be great" it's as if for the first time in their lives, they're self-conscious that thats they way we make a request. A silly way; if they could pass the salt it would be nice, but not necessarily great. It would be convenient but not awesome. But that's what we say in order to feel politest.
» EXPRESS: Yeah, just thinking about how tangled our motivations and
meaning and words are, I understood completely why you called one chapter "Down
the Rabbit Hole." How difficult was it to structure this book?
» PINKER: It was tremendously difficult. It's difficult to make difficult material both comprehensible and interesting; you've got to convince people why they should care. And I argue that they should care, but you have to put some effort into showing why anyone would be interested in verbs.
» EXPRESS: How did you get started?
» PINKER: It started with the chapter on verbs. The second chapter is actually based on work that I did a while ago ["Learnability and Cognition: The Acquisition of Argument Structure"]. I wrote about it in an academic book published in 1989. At the time, I just wrote it for my fellow academics but I thought it would be interesting to a wider audience. So that is rewritten in a more accessible and, I hope, interesting way.
» EXPRESS: Then you couldn't stop.
» PINKER: Right, and it kind of was a natural lead-in to the other topics of the book. The question of verbs was, "What's the inventory of thought that people can think?" And I thought it was elementary like cause, move, change, act and it kind of gives you an inventory of thought. It's like discovering the periodic table of the elements in chemistry. So if that's what language can do in terms of our thoughts, our cognitive abilities, what about emotions? Which brought me to the chapter on swearing and social relationships how many social relations are there? And that was the chapter on politeness and innuendo.
And when I speak about the book, I divide into three parts: what are the thoughts revealed through language; what are the main kinds of emotions that obsess us, revealed by swearing; and what are the kinds of emotional relationships that guide us, and that's the chapter on indirect speech.
» EXPRESS: Tell me about Project Steve.
» PINKER: This was a mostly humorous stunt by the National Council for Science Educations, which is an organization in California that tries to fight creationist and intelligent design propaganda. It arose in sort of counter tactic to those signed ads that you see in magazines, saying, "The following 15 scientists claim flaws in Darwin's theory."
The NCSE said, "Fifteen scientists? We can get 700 scientists just named Steve who stand by evolution."
The curious fact is that so many men between 40 and 60 are named Steve, and for some reason I don't know if this is statistically real but a lot of them seem to go into science or at least write science books.
» EXPRESS: Is it weird to not be able to feel proprietary about your
» PINKER: Well, I'm still just surrounded by Steves. ... when I was a kid, I was addressed by my initials, Steven P. I don't get hung up on it.
» EXPRESS: Could I trouble you to talk about the chapter on social
euphemism? That would be awesome.
» PINKER: I actually found the chapter on innuendo and euphemism the most challenging, and it surprised me. I was trying to figure out why people feel more comfortable using euphemism rather than blurting it out. When Harry asks Sally to come up for coffee and she says no, he knows he's made a sexual overtone and he's been turned down. She knows he's made a sexual overture and turned him down. So why is it so much more comfortable to say "coffee" rather than "sex"? The more I thought about it, the trickier it was to explain, so all the intellectual work that I had to do to come up with a theory of that surprised me. You say, " Oh, you're just saving face," but what does that really mean, that you're saving face or lying and seeing through the lie?
Also in that chapter on innuendo, I include an excerpt from a book that talks about the codes of gay men cruising in restrooms, from the early 1950s. I wrote it before the Larry Craig scandal, so I couldnt talk about [the current scandal]. But that's about plausible deniability and what you communicate without using overt language.
» National Academy of Sciences, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW; Mon., 7 p.m., $25 general public, $15 Resident Associate members; 202-633-3030.
Photo by Rebecca Goldstein