Speech Talk 1: Steven Pinker – on language

Steven Pinker is one of our favourite language scientists.  Although he has his critics, he doesn’t mask his thoughts with academic jargon and impenetrable prose.  You know where he stands, even if you disagree with some of his more “hard line” views on things like Universal Grammar and innateness.  He’s also not afraid to change his mind when persuasive evidence emerges to challenge his original position.

We first came across Dr Pinker’s work in his popular science book, The Language Instinct.  His writing is crisp – at times irreverent – and he tackles complex, controversial topics in a highly readable and entertaining way.  In particular, Dr Pinker’s colourful use of metaphor allows him to make very abstract concepts concrete. It’s no surprise that he’s considered a good friend of students.  His books are a great introduction to linguistics, language and speech.  You can read more about him here.

Here’s a talk Dr Pinker did for TED back in September 2007.  In parts, it’s a little more dry and technical than some of his mainstream writing.  But it’s about a fascinating topic: the relationship of language to thought, and what language can reveal about human nature.

Key ideas and images we took away from this talk include:

  • language as a window to understanding human nature;
  • the verb as a chassis of the sentence;
  • the sentence as a container of thought;
  • the distinction between language (including an individual language like English) and “mentalese” (the stuff of thought);
  • the importance of the verbs “to go” and “to have”;
  • intelligence as a repertoire of concepts and a process of metaphorical abstraction, enabling people to go from using language to talk about rocks, tools and animals in plain sight to abstractions like space, time, force, science and law; and
  • using Alan Fiske‘s work on four different uses of language in relationships as a framework for interpreting human behaviour, and for explaining the awkwardness we feel when there is a mismatch.
David

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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