csmonitor.com - The Christian Science Monitor Online
from the November 02, 2007 edition - http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1102/p18s01-hfes.html

Steven Pinker's Bright 'Stuff'

A new book is full of interesting ways to think about language.

I do not have a carburetor in my head – or a trombone, or even a doorknob. None of us does, really. And what a relief it is to find this out.

Harvard linguist Steven Pinker explained all this to a campus audience last week as he was trying to illumine the controversy within the field of linguistics over what's known as "nativism."

In its extreme form, this is the idea that people are born with 50,000 or so concepts in their heads, including carburetors, trombones, and doorknobs. In this view, a child's work of mastering language involves learning words and matching them up with the ideas that are already there in the inventory, so to speak.

Moreover, the concepts that make up this vocabulary of ideas are "atomic" – truly indivisible. They cannot be broken down into constituent parts. "Father," for instance, can't be broken down into "male" plus "parent."

Dr. Pinker argues that this is wrong – but he presents the theory to set it off from his own ideas. As he writes in his new book, "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature": "Much can be gained by contrasting a theory with its alternatives, even ones that look too extreme to be true."

What Pinker thinks we all do have in our minds are some basic concepts about time, space, cause and effect, and goals, among others. We lay words on top of this conceptual foundation.

Since hearing Pinker, I've been dipping into his book. In its preface, he writes, "A close look at our speech – our conversations, our jokes, our curses, our legal disputes, the names we give our babies – can ... give us insight into who we are."

It's a scholarly book, in the best sense, but accessible, too. But Pinker is a neuroscientist as well as a linguist, so there's a fair bit about the brain here. He also devotes an entire chapter to "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television." It's an intellectually serious analysis of the role of swearing in human language, but you wouldn't want to leave the book open to this chapter if you expect the parson to come calling.

Along with its ideas about how humans acquire language, "The Stuff" offers ideas for ways to think about language.

I'm glad to see someone else taking sound symbolism seriously, and I'm thrilled to learn the new (to me) word, phonesthesia. In his discussion of how new words are coined, or old ones are stretched to new meanings, he writes, "Onomatopoeia and sound symbolism are the seeds of a more pervasive phenomenon in language called phonesthesia, in which families of words share a teeny snatch of sound and a teeny shred of meaning."

For example, many words beginning with the sound sn have something to do with the nose: snout, snorkel, sneeze, sniff, sniffle, snivel, snore, and snort, as well as a whole family of words specifically for looking down your nose at someone – snarky, sneer, snicker, snide, snippy, snob, snooty, and snub.

The sn family is one of the clearest examples of this, but Pinker identifies others: Words beginning with cl often refer to a "cohesive aggregate or a pair of surfaces in contact:" clad, clam, clamp, clan, clap clasp, clave, clench, close, clump, cluster. There may be something about the hard "c" sound and the liquid sound of the "l" that makes for some good sound symbolism here. (Think bathroom tiles and the caulking between them, or bricks and mortar, or maybe layer cake and frosting.)

The gl family, Pinker suggests, is often connected with the emission of light, and he offers many examples: glare, glass, glaze, gleam, glimmer, glimpse, glint, glisten, glitter, gloaming, gloss, glow.

Another set of terms I've learned is telic, used for an event that has a distinct endpoint, an implicit goal – and its opposite, atelic, used to refer to an activity that does not. "Staring out the window" is atelic. "Writing my column" is telic.

Having reached the goal, I'll close here.