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.
Language reveals the mechanics of our
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
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
Which of these constructions a verb will allow turns
out to depend on a startlingly precise appreciation of the physics
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
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
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
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