Asking Steven Pinker, Harvard researcher and best-selling author, to pass the salt turns out to be very educational.
Not about sodium and high blood pressure, but about how we use language and what that reveals about human nature.
Pinker specializes in the psychology of language and also in shaking up the scientific establishment. Five years ago he ignited an academic firestorm with the best-selling book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which argued that innate behavioural differences exist among individuals and between men and women.
The 52-year-old cognitive scientist, born and raised in Montreal, is again challenging conventional wisdom with The Stuff of Thought, a book about language due out in September. He'll deliver a lecture in Toronto on the topic Wednesday, as part of 15th anniversary celebrations for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
"We have to do two things with language. We've got to convey a message and we've got to negotiate what kind of social relationship we have with someone," Pinker says in a telephone interview from his home in Cambridge, Mass.
Even something as seemingly straightforward as asking for the salt involves thinking and communicating at two levels, which is why we utter such convoluted requests as, "If you think you could pass the salt, that would be great."
Says Pinker: "It's become so common that we don't even notice that it is a philosophical rumination rather than a direct imperative. It's a bit of a social dilemma. On the one hand, you do want the salt. On the other hand, you don't want to boss people around lightly.
"So you split the difference by saying something that literally makes no sense while also conveying the message that you're not treating them like some kind of flunky."
The Harvard psychologist classes the salt request as an example of indirect speech, a category that also includes euphemisms and innuendo. Two other key themes for Wednesday's talk are the ubiquity of metaphor in everyday language and swearing and what it says about human emotion.
For Pinker all three categories of language provide windows on human nature, and analyzing them can reveal what people are thinking and feeling. The approach builds upon his earlier thesis that human nature has distinct and universal properties, some of which are innate – determined at birth by genes rather than shaped primarily by environment.
Known as evolutionary psychology, this field of study looks at human behaviour through the lens of natural selection, treating our mental faculties for things like language as the result of an evolutionary adaptation, just like the process that produces the human eye. This approach runs the risk of being hijacked by advocates of biological determinism – our genes dictate what we do – or even the proponents of eugenics – the breeding of a master race.
Pinker is familiar with such dangers, having navigated the determinist shoals in both The Blank Slate and an earlier book, How the Mind Works. His current focus reaches even further back, to his first book for the general public, The Language Instinct, and to an even earlier academic tome about how children acquire verbs.
"I have a chapter on verbs in this book because verbs are how we talk about causation, who did what to whom, who's responsible for someone's death. The answer to that is very much like who gets to be the subject of a verb. I argue that we have a sense of causal agency or responsibility that both governs our language and governs our moral and legal reasoning."
While verbs are undoubtedly pivotal, readers and listeners are more likely to be drawn by Pinker's apparently exhaustive investigation of swearing, which challenges even a classic work in this field, Shakespeare's Bawdy by Eric Partridge.
"As it turns out, people swear in five different ways. That's why it took me a while to figure this out," he says.
A family newspaper can't reproduce most of Pinker's instances of earthy language, without resorting to a surfeit of – 's. Not to mention *s, !s and even XXXXs. His analysis of the subject matter and the impact of swearing, however, is a safer matter. Mostly.
"The subject matter of swearing is something that people don't like to have taken lightly. Sex is a big deal. An atmosphere in which you bring up sex at the drop of a hat seems to many people to remove some of the inhibitions about thinking about sex. Casual speech about sex occurs in an atmosphere that would tolerate casual sex itself and there are a lot of reasons why people get upset about casual sex."
Using sexual terms in swearing, something like motherf---er, evokes revulsion over the implied depravity.
In addition to sex, Pinker lists four taboo subjects that dominate swearing: religion, excretion, despised groups, and disease and infirmity.
These change over time and differ from one society to another.
"There were curses like `a pox on you' in English, but we don't have much of that anymore. In Yiddish, for example, the word for cholera, choleryeh, means curse."
Then there's the difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Pinker spent the first 22 years of his life in Montreal graduating with a B.A. in psychology from McGill, so he has no trouble in cursing in French.
Yet he says that the root difference has more to do with Catholicism than with language. Before the Reformation, English swearing was rich in religious taboo words. It still is in nominally Catholic societies, like Quebec.
Pinker cautions that his work looks at what swearwords across languages have in common rather than the swearwords of any one language.
The most common denominator is taboo words that arouse strong negative emotions. Hearing or reading these words triggers activity in the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain believed to invest our thoughts with aggression, fear, threat recognition, and other negative emotions.
But why does the amygdala light up, why do we get upset when someone swears at us, and why do societies pass laws against swearing on the airwaves?
"People know there is a difference between what you do and what you accept. There is a difference between me knowing that people swear, me hearing people swear and me swearing, and everyone accepting that this is something you can do as much as you like."
While swearing may garner public attention, perhaps the more surprising aspect of Pinker's work traces the pervasiveness of metaphor in language. Not flowery poetic allusions or rhetorical similes but concrete-to-abstract transitions so common in everyday speech and writing that we often don't even recognize them as metaphorical.
Consider this sentence:
"He attacked my position and I defended it." It uses the metaphor of argument as war. Or how about "this program isn't going anywhere," which uses the metaphor of progress as motion.
Says Pinker: "Look at almost any passage and you'll find that a paragraph has five or six metaphors in it. It's not that the speaker is trying to be poetic, it's just that that's the way language works.
"Rather than occasionally reaching for a metaphor to communicate, to a very large extent communication is the use of metaphor," he says.
"It could be that 95 per cent of our speech is metaphorical, if you go back far enough in language."
Why? Here, the teacher part of researcher and author Steven Pinker comes to the fore, offering a boring explanation and an interesting explanation, both with an element of truth.
The boring explanation is that using metaphor is a quick-and-dirty way of expressing a new idea without the trouble of coining [notice the metaphor] and propagating a new word.
"But that presupposes that the mind itself works metaphorically, that we see the abstract commonality between argument and war, between progress and motion. And it presupposes that the mind, at some level, must reason very concretely in order that these metaphors be understood and become contagious.
"And that's the more interesting part of the story."
Except, perhaps, for the revelation about asking for a salt shaker.