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The magic of metaphors


Last Updated: 12:01am BST 06/10/2007

Robert Hanks reviews The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker

In the film of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, the persecuted Baudelaire orphans are dispatched to live with their Aunt Josephine, whose life is hemmed in by a collection of irrational terrors.

 
The Stuff of Thought
Language reveals the mechanics of our minds

She is frightened that she might be crushed by a falling fridge, burned by the flame from a stove, blinded by a shattering glass doorknob. As if that weren't enough, she also believes that grammar is "the greatest joy in life".

As things turn out, though, Aunt Josephine isn't as crazy as the children think: when a hurricane strikes the house, the fridge falls over, the stove bursts into flame, and the heat causes a doorknob to explode. And as Steven Pinker shows in The Stuff of Thought, she wasn't so far out regarding grammar.

This latest book is, according to the author, the final volume of two trilogies.

In the first trilogy, which started with The Language Instinct (1994) and Words and Rules (1999), Pinker has pursued the human capacity for language how we manage to absorb vast numbers of words and the astoundingly complex rules that govern their use; the second trilogy, beginning with How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate (2002), has examined human nature in the light of evolution, looking at the ways history has shaped our faculties and feelings.

The Stuff of Thought puts the two together, showing how the structure of language reveals things about the mechanics of our minds.

The first half of the book concentrates on the ways that our minds deal with the objective, physical world. Pinker broaches the topic through a pair of particularly joy-giving constructions, the content-locative and container-locative.

A content-locative construction is a sentence such as "Hal loaded hay into the wagon", in which the emphasis is on the thing being moved; a container-locative construction is one such as "Hal loaded the wagon with hay", in which the emphasis is on where the thing is being moved to.

In ordinary speech, both are equally intelligible, though there is a distinction: when Hal loads hay, he may only chuck in a couple of pitchforks' worth; when he loads the wagon, you guess that the wagon ends up pretty full.

But not every verb has this ability to alternate between the two constructions: Hal threw hay into the wagon yes, that makes sense; Hal threw the wagon with hay eh? Hal filled hay into the wagon no; Hal filled the wagon with hay but of course.

Which of these constructions a verb will allow turns out to depend on a startlingly precise appreciation of the physics involved.

Take verbs that involve something liquid or gooey going into or on to a receptacle. You can either smear grease on an axle, or smear the axle with grease; and the same applies to similar actions in which force is being applied to both a substance and a surface, such as brushing, daubing, plastering, spreading and swabbing.

On the other hand, when gravity does the work for you, you can use the content- but not the container-locative: pour water into a glass, but not pour a glass with water (and likewise dribble, drip, funnel, ladle, spill, and so on). Other languages may not draw exactly the same lines, but the distinctions exist.

The fact that we language-speakers apply these rules without conscious effort suggests that we come ready equipped with a set of preconceptions not just about physics, but about owning, being, causing and, in a later chapter, about position and direction in time and in space.

Our language is riddled with metaphors derived from these categories: time is motion, understanding is seeing. Pinker shows how even the most abstract political language, as in the American Declaration of Independence, is derived at some remove from these metaphors: the word "independence" itself means "not hanging from", and implies two metaphors reliance is being supported, subordinate is down.

The second part of the book is less novel, less exciting: it deals with the ways in which language functions in society.

A chapter on names feels superfluous, getting mired in pop sociology; another on taboo words obscenity and cursing is more intriguing: experiments suggest that obscenities bypass our rational faculties to stir primal emotions; and Darwin suggested that "verbalised outbursts" may provide the missing link between animal cries and language.

A chapter called "Games People Play" deals with the uses of indirection in language, as when we wonder whether someone might pass the salt, rather than simply demanding: "Pass the salt." The conclusion is that such indirectness drains some of the potential for conflict out of social intercourse; that it is the human equivalent of a dog wagging its tail or crouching in submission.

The grey matter undoubtedly gets a work-out, but as always Pinker is a skilful exponent of the Mary Poppins approach, in which every medicinal exposition of neurological enquiry or philosophical debate is helped down with a spoonful of sugar: a joke, a story from the news, a pop-cultural reference, a cartoon strip, a personal anecdote or (increasingly, and unfortunately) an amusing story that's been doing the rounds on email or websites.

Some of the sugaring is very funny, such as his example of an analogy that doesn't do its job: "John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met."

Whether that really helps the reader to a better understanding of how analogies are supposed to work is another matter. But overall, The Stuff of Thought is illuminating (there goes that "seeing is understanding" metaphor again) and astonishingly readable: the perfect gift for your own Aunt Josephine; or even for yourself.

  • Steven Pinker is talking about The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature at the Congress Centre, 28 Great Russell Street, London WC1, 7pm Thurs 11 Oct
  • Tickets: Foyles 0870 420 2777 or www.foyles.co.uk/events
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