Steven Pinker Discusses Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain (Transcript)

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.

Now, the ideas we are going to share are about this talent, language, but with a slightly different sequence of hisses and squeaks, I could cause you to be thinking thoughts about a vast array of topics, anything from the latest developments in your favorite reality show to theories of the origin of the universe. This is what I think of as the miracle of language, its vast expressive power, and it’s a phenomenon that still fills me with wonder, even after having studied language for 35 years. And it is the prime phenomenon that the science of language aims to explain.

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Not surprisingly, language is central to human life. The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel reminds us that humans accomplish great things because they can exchange information about their knowledge and intentions via the medium of language. Language, moreover, is not a peculiarity of one culture, but it has been found in every society ever studied by anthropologists. There are some 6,000 languages spoken on Earth, all of them complex, and no one has ever discovered a human society that lacks complex language.

For this and other reasons, Charles Darwin wrote, “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the babble of our young children while no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew or write.” Language is an intricate talent and it’s not surprising that the science of language should be a complex discipline. It includes the study of how language itself works including: grammar, the assembly of words, phrases and sentences; phonology, the study of sound; semantics, the study of meaning; and pragmatics, the study of the use of language in conversation.

Scientists interested in language also study how it is processed in real time, a field called psycholinguistics; how is it acquired by children, the study of language acquisition. And how it is computed in the brain, the discipline called neurolinguistics.

Now, before we begin, it’s important to not to confuse language with three other things that are closely related to language. One of them is written language. Unlike spoken language, which is found in all human cultures throughout history, writing was invented a very small number of times in human history, about 5,000 years ago. And alphabetic writing where each mark on the page stands for a vowel or a consonant, appears to have been invented only once in all of human history by the Canaanites about 3,700 years ago. And as Darwin pointed out, children have no instinctive tendency to write, but have to learn it through construction and schooling.

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A second thing not to confuse language with is proper grammar. Linguists distinguish between descriptive grammar – the rules that characterize how people to speak – and prescriptive grammar – rules that characterize how people ought to speak if they are writing careful written prose. A dirty secret from linguistics is that not only are these not the same kinds of rules, but many of the prescriptive rules of language make no sense whatsoever.

Take one of the most famous of these rules, the rule not to split infinitives. According to this rule, Captain Kirk made a grievous grammatical error when he said that the mission of the Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”  He should have said, according to these editors, “to go boldly where no man has gone before,” which immediately clashes with the rhythm and structure of ordinary English. In fact, this prescriptive rule was based on a clumsy analogy with Latin where you can’t split an infinitive because it’s a single word, as in [facary] to do. Julius Caesar couldn’t have split an infinitive if he wanted to. That rule was translated literally over into English where it really should not apply.

Another famous prescriptive rule is that, one should never use a so-called double negative.  Mick Jagger should not have sung, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” he really should have sung, “I can’t get any satisfaction.”

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