The Stuff of Thought

My blurb on Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought (2007).

the-stuff-of-thought

For me, this book was a brilliant journey through linguistics and how language shapes the mind. It is the third book in a trilogy, but it is completely readable on its own.

The book starts strong with a very captivating introduction, which does a good job at convincing somebody why linguistics matters. But, the second chapter, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” seemed very much like a textbook. It felt like I was in Intro to Linguistics again. Of course, I found it interesting that many words can only be used with certain phrasings, for example, “fill the glass with water” is fine whereas “fill water into the glass” is not; however, the treatment seemed a bit too drawn out for a general audience. In addition, the vast majority of technical terms introduced in this chapter were not used again for the rest of the book, nor was there much immediate followup. But after this, the book skillfully takes off, and in fact I went from chapter 3 to finish in one run.

The most interesting chapter to me was number 4: “Cleaving the Air.” This chapter deals with how our perception of space and time is shaped by our language. Due to the subject matter, the chapter includes a (masterful) mix of linguistics, philosophy, and physics. Referring to grammatical time, as opposed to physical time (190):

Sometimes the past and future are subdivided into recent and  remote intervals, similar to the dichotomy between here and there or near or far. But no grammatical system reckons time from some fixed beginning point… or uses constant numerical units like seconds or minutes. This makes the location of events in time highly vague, as when Groucho told a hostess, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”

In Chapter 6, “What’s in a Name?”, Pinker analyzes the art of naming, including his own (279):

…I repeatedly found myself surrounded by Steves. In school I was always addressed by an initial as well as a name, since every class had two or three of us, and as I furthered my education the concentration of Steveness just kept increasing. My graduate school roommate was a Steve, as was my advisor and another of his students (resulting in a three-Steve paper), and when I started my own lab, I hired two Steves in a row to run it.

Chapter 7, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television,” is one that is both amusing and amazing. It is a short treatment of profanity in language, dealing with words that are considered obscene or taboo. Quite carefully, Pinker uses euphemisms even when discussing the use of euphemisms (345):

The dread of effluvia, of course, can also be modulated, as it must be in sex, medicine, nursing, and the care of animals and babies. As we shall see, this desensitization is sometimes helped along with the use of euphemisms that play down the repellence of the effluvia.

That paragraph is gold.

Finally, Pinker explores some game theory in Chapter 8: “Games People Play.” Namely, when does one say things directly vs indirectly, truthfully vs politely? When does one offer (or conceal) a bribe? When does one take a bribe? This and many more questions are explored. Not surprisingly, the results fit what an economic intuition would imply, but it is interesting to see such games from the perspective of linguistics.

Overall, this is a brilliant book. It reminded me of Gödel, Escher, Bach, which also was multi-disciplinary and made extensive use of humor.

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