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We are what we say

Whether investigating Bush's use of the verb 'learn' or our penchant for cussing, Steven Pinker insists that linguistics is about more than mere semantics. John Allemang talks to the Harvard psychologist about the evolutionary roots of expletives and other chatter

Language is a window into human nature, renowned evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker likes to say, a means of figuring out the mysteries of the mind through what we say and what we mean.

His premise may sound lofty, but his arguments are grounded in wordplay that hasn't quite shed the primeval muck. Ask the Montreal-born Harvard professor about the language of emotion, for example, and he swears like a highly educated sailor - about 50 pages of his latest book, The Stuff of Thought, is devoted to the words politicians and other stuffy thinkers like to ban but he celebrates for the insights they supply into our cerebral complexities.

Okay, we're getting into lofty territory again, but it's hard not to do so with Prof. Pinker's work. He has an almost unmatched gift among scientists for mixing the profane and the high-minded, refusing to distinguish between the wisdom of Woody Allen and Noam Chomsky when it comes to analyzing the range of words that emerge from our mouths.

As for why we shout out a not entirely appropriate word relating to copulation or excrement at the very moment the hammer hits our thumbs or our soon-to-be-spilled beer starts pitching forward into our laps? It's much harder not to swear, or to come up with some bowdlerized override like "fiddlesticks" or "sugar." Because ordinarily offensive, discouraged-from-this-newspaper swearing at moments of sudden pain or unexpected annoyance is what we do by nature.

And it's that universal incongruity that Prof. Pinker finds so attractive. So he lifts the window into our hidden emotions that swearing kindly offers, and what does he see? "It's a case of an evolutionary innovation of language being infiltrated by very ancient circuits from our mammalian, even our reptilian ancestors."

"Cathartic" swearing is what the 52-year-old calls that particular kind of outburst, and even though we move our tongue and lips to produce the dirty word that somehow cleanses, it all starts with an animal's plaintive cry.

"The impulse probably starts with what neurobiologists call the rage circuit," he says. "An animal that is suddenly injured emits an ear-piercing yelp, presumably to startle or intimidate an attacker. In the case of humans, we still yelp, but the sound gets funnelled through parts of the brain, probably in the right hemisphere, that are connected with negative emotion, such as the emotion of disgust for excretion. So there's a bleeding of negative emotion when you suffer injury with the negative connotation of these words. And also, as part of the rage circuit, your inhibitions are released because you don't want to be cautious in what might be your final five seconds."

So swearing, like so many things in Steven Pinker's world, comes down to survival, if only by evolutionary accident. Which may be why critics damn his approach as "biological determinism," as if the more adaptive traits we're shown to possess, the more meaningless our lives become.

But at the level of language at least, his wandering mind opens up many more possibilities than it closes off - and what he aims to do in The Stuff of Thought is explain the mental models that lie behind our social dialogues and the contentious language that often results.

"I'm trying to show that semantics involves the way we conceptualize the world," he says. "The way we package the flow of time into events that we can count and compare. The way we assign responsibility to people for actions and events. The way we understand the causal texture of the environment, what leads to what and how we can manipulate things. What's really at stake in so-called debates of semantics is not language itself but the construal of the world."

Prof. Pinker wants us to understand the relation of words to thoughts, emotions, social relations, community-building, a shared understanding of reality - but often he gets our attention by pointing out the disorder of our semantic arrangements. Whether, for instance, the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 should be perceived as one event or two for insurance purposes (a $3.5-billion difference, in fact).

Or whether George W. Bush told a whopper when he pronounced the fateful words, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The key word in Mr. Bush's statement is the verb "learned." "Learn," Prof. Pinker points out, is a factive verb (more like "know," less like "think"), meaning that the belief attributed to its subject is true. "Has learned" in this case means "acquired true information."

So there's a case to be made that Mr. Bush lied, especially since his assertion was made in the face of his own experts' doubts. He could, of course, have kept a safe distance by announcing that "the British government has said..." But that cautious choice of wording would have set off warning lights for his audience. The fate of an American president, at least in Steven Pinker's finely judged world, hinges on the fine points of a single verb.

It's not surprising to learn, after this kind of back-to-basics analysis, that the starting point for The Stuff of Thought is the research Prof. Pinker conducted two decades ago on children's curiously erratic use of verbs.

"I was trying to crack simple linguistic mysteries like why can you pour water into a glass but not pour a glass with water, why fill a glass with water but not fill water into a glass? This turns out to involve differences in whether you construe the event as causing the water to move or causing the glass to change state - even something as simple and concrete as walking over to the faucet and putting water in the glass can be construed in the mind in two very different ways, which in turn determines how we talk about it. And if filling a glass with water can be thought about in two different ways, think how many ways there are to construe events on a much larger scale like the war in Iraq."

Language, for all these ambiguities and abuses, is still something the evolutionist can't help but adore. It has allowed us to share ideas and know-how, and the close connection between talking and toolmaking (technology, in modern terms) is no coincidence, at least for a good Darwinian.

In considering Prof. Pinker's passion for the nuances of language, it also seems obvious to trace his strong feelings back to the simple fact that he comes from Montreal, a place where language is the central fact. "You're tempting me to say 'yes,' because it's such a good story," he responds politely to this notion, but what the scientist in him really means to say is, "Get real."

Montreal has affected him in other ways, though. His worldly discussion of swearing wisely extends to the Québécois preference for religious yelps such as tabernacle and chalice that sound quaintly comic to unreligious Anglo ears. Secularism, he points out, came late to Quebec. (Which makes sense, but doesn't quite explain why it's no big deal to say merde in Montreal.)

His other nod to Montreal - which will go over the heads of much of his readership, such is the nature of allusion in the globalized marketplace - is the odd reference to a certain Lafleur in his extensive analysis of verbs. As in his example for the power of the simple present tense in ongoing narration: "Lafleur skates down the ice ... He shoots ... He scores!"

"I'm a lifelong Canadiens fan," Prof. Pinker admits, "and Guy Lafleur had to be my favourite - partly because his blow-dried hair made it look like he was going 100 miles an hour even when he was standing still, but also because he was a finesse player, which we Montrealers are quite proud of in our Canadiens."

Finesse is a gift of language as well, or so The Stuff of Thought seems to suggest - even George W. Bush in his crude way managed to finesse a war through a single verb. And yet Prof. Pinker is happy to point out the gaps that can still loom between language and thought, something he recently encountered when reading Herman Melville's Moby-Dick with his girlfriend, the novelist, philosopher and biographer Rebecca Goldstein.

"It's infamous for its lengthy descriptions of what it's like aboard a whaling ship," he says, "and while I found it absolutely fascinating, I had only the haziest idea of what the process of whaling was like. Then we rented the 1956 film of the novel by John Huston and everything clicked. As skilled and obsessive as Melville was, neither of us had a clear image of even the shape of the whale or how the boats were lowered until we saw it on camera."

John Allemang is a feature writer with The Globe and Mail.

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