Here is the full text of Steven Pinker’s lecture titled “Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain.” In this lecture, Steven Pinker, renowned linguist and Harvard Psychology Professor, discusses linguistics as a window to understanding the human brain….
My name is Steve Pinker, and I’m Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. And today I’m going to speak to you about language. I’m actually not a linguist, but a cognitive scientist. I’m not so much interested as language as an object in its own right, but as a window to the human mind.
Language is one of the fundamental topics in the human sciences. It’s the trait that most conspicuously distinguishes humans from other species, it’s essential to human cooperation; we accomplish amazing things by sharing our knowledge or coordinating our actions by means of words.
It poses profound scientific mysteries such as, how did language evolve in this particular species? How does the brain compute language? But also, language has many practical applications not surprisingly given how central it is to human life. Language comes so naturally to us that we’re apt to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is. But think about what you’re doing for the next hour. You’re going to be listening patiently as a guy makes noise as he exhales.
Now, why would you do something like that? It’s not that I can claim that the sounds I’m going to make are particularly mellifluous, but rather I’ve coded information into the exact sequences of hisses and hums and squeaks and pops that I’ll be making. You have the ability to recover the information from that stream of noises allowing us to share ideas.