Running Head: The Power of LanguageThe Power of Language:A Critical Review of The Stuff of Thought by Steven PinkerBy: 2014-04936Submitted to:Mr. Ramon Joseph DagumanIn Partial fulfilment of the requirementsFor Psychology 145: Psychology of LanguageSubmitted on:15 December 2017Running Head: The Power of LanguageIn his book, A Stuff Thought, Steven Pinker takes a look into the different aspects ofhuman communication. He investigated the mechanisms, connections, and implications of oureveryday speech that would give us insights as to how the human mind processes informationand shape a person’s way of thinking. The book included insights from different psychologicallenses such as cognitive psych and evolutionary psych to explain everyday speech.
Also, itexplored language in different levels, from word level to speech level. The book surelypresented interesting and clever insights about the connection of the language and the mind.This paper, then, aims to do a critical analysis on some of the major points presented by Pinkerin the book. It would also compare these points with existing and new researches andperspectives from other theorists that may or may not support the author’s propositions. Theauthor of this paper would also want to incorporate the concepts and ideas regarding languageand its effects on meaning-making and human interaction in the present Philippine context.Steven Pinker, in his preface of the book, said that ?There is a theory of space and timeembedded in the way we use words.? Given this, he established how space and time could havea causal effect to language production and perception.
Language, according to him, is used increating realities. The reality layout the ground rules for how we understand our environment.And so, in order to establish focus for this review, the aspects of language that would beexplored would be the ones that give meaning to words and how it is used in everyday setting:semantics and pragmatics. This review would hopefully establish, synthesize, and critique thepropositions of Pinker regarding the semantics and pragmatics of language.The first chapter of Pinker’s book started with a basic part of speech: Word. He exploredon how word affects our meaning making and how we associate things and/or symbols to thesegroup of letters.
The different dimensions of meaning are discussed in this section as well ashow words are affected by social contexts.Running Head: The Power of LanguageHe opened the chapter by making readers recall the tragic 9/11 incident. Then, heexplored on the meaning of the word ?event.? It differs depending on the reference of the onewho is speaking. Depending on the perspective of the one who is speaking and the one who islistening the ?event? can refer to the incident itself (the bombing) thus corresponding to only oneevent or some could argue that there are two events because they were hit at two differenttimes by two different planes. The attribution that we make or give to the word ?event? dependson how we give meaning to it.
We could see how the nature of reality does not determine theway it is represented in the minds of the people. In order to understand a word, we frame it baseon our own perception of reality. This principle connotes that our minds alter and/or shape themeaning of the word based from prior knowledge and/or experience as well as expectations.The semantics of the word, I would suggest, and its reality are subjected to an individual’sreconstruction of his or her version of reality. However, despite this individual reframing, Pinkerposited that they are not just ideas woven into a person’s head but rather they are woven intothe ?causal fabric of the world itself (p.
9)? Giving the idea that words are communal and areshared. I think this point is evident when we talk about the connotative and denotativedimensions of semantics. Whether they are figurative or literal meaning, words’ semantics areshared by groups of people. Pinker elaborated this further in the next chapters. Also, since weestablished that words have connotative and denotative dimensions that are shared by people,Pinker argued that these very dimensions of semantics give words their affective component.Words and their meaning can prime certain emotions in humans. They evoke emotions. A studyby Linquist et.
al. (2015) found out that words facilitate the meaning making of sensations in thebody in a given context. Words can give label and explanation and/or meaning to on-goingsensory perceptions.
The last point he included about words is that all of the other aspects ofwords are essential for the communicative aspect of words. That is, words are social whereindifferent versions of realities are shared into a community that give meaning to it.Running Head: The Power of LanguageWith all these presented, we could see how semantics are very important in differentways. But ultimately, the meanings of these words whether personally or communallyconstructed affect both the Self and our perception of reality.The second chapter of his book concerns language acquisition by children but he gavefocus on acquisition of verbs. But first, he pointed out how amazing the mind of the human babyis.
He was particularly amazed as to how the young mind can acquire information at such a fastrate. In such a short time, according to him, they can learn thousands of vocabulary, thecommand of grammar, and the vernacular. This acquisition of children of a wide variety oflanguage cannot be explained through just rote learning of language since they can utilize it in adifferent instances. They do not have a clear grasp yet on the rules of grammar but I thinkbased on the evidence that they have a clear understanding that language and words can bemanipulated in order to fit a particular context and way of reasoning. Ergo, as Pinker alsoposited, children already developed a sense of analysis to the everyday speech that they hear.In a way, they are capable of reasoning inductively and deductively.
Learning the mother tongueis an inductive process in itself. However, this inductive reasoning in children could lead to falsegeneralizations. These errors, however, are fine since it signifies that the speech and/orunderstanding of speech of babies are not just acquire to mere imitations but rather through amore complex and thorough cognitive processing. One such error of false generalization is whatCarroll called ?overgeneralization.? In the process of language of acquisition of infants, certainrules about sentence construction and morphological arrangements and/or rules are acquired.Overgeneralization refers to how a child could use certain grammatical rules in one instanceand in another where it would violate grammatical rules.
One of the most often cited exampleregarding overgeneralization is the children’s use of past tense. Children only learn moreadvanced speech through increasing morphological knowledge. So, normally when they startlearning about the past tense form of the verb , they would acquire the knowledge on how touse the morpheme –ed. However, our knowledge about past tense would tell us that we cannotRunning Head: The Power of Languageuse the morpheme in some cases because there are irregular verbs.
However, children do notstill have this knowledge so they overgeneralize the morpheme to other past tense words (e.g.go-ed, awaked, etc.). This example shows proof to the false generalization of children.
However, as mentioned above, it is not a sign of disability but rather a sign that children’sspeech are rooted in cognitive processing. Overgeneralizations are also healthy because itallows children to realize their mistakes and ultimately reframe their schema regarding thesemorphemes.These discussions on children’s acquisition also sparked the question of whether theirminds are blank slate or there is an innate mechanism through which they understand andprocess linguistic stimuli. Given these points, I think I agree with the points in the book and inour discussions that there is an innate capability in children reserve for language acquisition. Athing as complex as language and its acquisition could not be explained by the present learningtheories today especially accounting for the quick acquisition of speech. Ergo, I think NoamChomsky’s Language Acquistion Device proposition would somehow suffice the questions andgaps presented in this book.Chapter Three of Pinker’s book discussed different radical theories of language andthought. It is entitled: Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts.
The title is from the hypothesis of a mannamed Fodor who said that we were born with 50,000 innate concepts. This chapter focuses onthe different radical propositions regarding language. Since the book and the paper talks abouthow semantics and pragmatics interact and affect language, this paper would focus on oneaspect of this chapter: that is, linguistic determinism. The first chapter of the book alreadypresented ideas as to how our minds and language are connected. It extended the thoughtbecause, not only mind but also the minds of other people are affected by words and/orlanguage, their emotions, reality, and social world. In this radical theory, linguistic determinismproposes that language somehow determines thoughts.
Pinker compared this theory withconceptual semantics. He is not a big fan of this theory. He is still leaning towards theRunning Head: The Power of Languageconceptual semantics theory. According to this theory, the meanings of words and sentencesare formulas in an abstract language of thought whereas in linguistic determinism, the languagewe speak is the language of thought, and somehow determines it. Pinker pointed out that?language determines thought? is a huge claim. The question arises whether we are boundedjust by our language. He also questioned the validity of the theory since language and itselements are connected in many ways and the divisions are blurry. Therefore, it is almostimpossible to prove that this aspect of language causes this to happen and that it providesboundaries to our thinking.
He also provided some of the empirical evidences of the Sapirhypothesis including the evidences seen in Eskimos wherein multiple words are associated fordifferent types of snow. Pinker noted that probably, one of the reasons why the Linguisticdeterminism hypothesis emerged as one of the most used models is probably because of itssimplicity to grasp and is very interesting. However, he presented evidences against thedeterminism of thought in the Eskimos. He thought that it was funny and was somehow ridiculedabout the propositions of the theory. Quotations from famous philosophers were also included todisprove the claims of language determinism including Friedrich Nietzsche, LudwigWittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Roland Barthes. However, as much as Pinker hated thetheory, I think personally as a bilingual speaker, there is some truth about the LinguisticDeterminism theory. Pinker only considered the strong version of the theory, which receivedlittle to no empirical support.
He failed to discuss the weak version of the theory whereinlanguage does not determine thought but rather facilitates thought. Language still has an activerole in this version of the theory and I think I agree with most of the propositions of this version.Some of the empirical evidences that give support to the weak version of the Linguisticdeterminism theory includes the differences in color naming, number naming, object and placemarking of different languages. These empirical evidences give strong support to the claim thatour language shape and/or facilitate our way of thinking.
Connecting this to the first fewRunning Head: The Power of Languageparagraphs, words affect, express, and/or stimulate an emotion, does not it? Emotion affectsour decision-making skills and way of thinking. Thus, indirectly speaking, words affect thought.Pinker got quite philosophical in the next chapter. He explored on the boundaries ofhuman mind and imagination. The human mind is a powerful thing, according to him, but thereare just some things that we could not imagine because we cannot form mental image to it (e.g.visualizing apple next to a lemon with neither one to the right, an object that is symmetrical ortriangular but does not have a finite shape, or an object that is not in space).
He, then asked,whether these experiences come from the design of the human mind or just the nature of theperceptible universe. This chapter revolved around the concept of space, time, and causalityand related it to how the things that we actually think about with respect to time and space. Themost basic entities of thought are nouns according to Pinker. It is the first thing that babieslearn. The whole chapter focused on how we think about those three dimensions.The next chapter talked about metaphors. According to our discussions, metaphors areexamples of figurative language. It probably shows how our minds work, we dig and dig deeperuntil we get to the most fundamental root/ source of a particular word or name.
Metaphors areinteresting at least to me personally, because it reflects and shows the higher level of reasoningof man. It does not have anything to do with survival whatsoever, but our use of figurativelanguage helps us define our species as human. The book gave importance to conceptualmetaphors. In the discussions in the class, conceptual metaphors are not creative expressionsbut rather instantiations of underlying conceptual metaphors. This is where the digging comesin. In addition to this, Pinker said in his book that people effortlessly transform and understandmetaphors.
They do not need much cognitive energy in order to ?dig? into their lexicon tounderstand a metaphor. This is essential because Pinker would argue that these conceptualmetaphors are not just literary garnishes but it aids reasoning. In the same way that figurativelanguage are not just creative expressions. They are ways to fill gaps in our vocabulary andlanguage.Running Head: The Power of LanguageI also think that it is a way of the human mind to ease access and retrieval ofinformation. By building a new concept from an older, and more established concept through theuse of metaphors, it will be easier and more efficient for groups of people to establish themeaning and reach a common knowledge regarding the word.The next chapter gave focus on meaning making. Where do we find meaning? Pinkerposited that we find meaning from the world and from ourselves.
Basically, external and internalfactors work hand-in-hand to create meaning. How do we make meaning and how do we createwords. Through the lens of philosophy, Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that meaning makinghappens after a stimulus is perceived by our senses but the mind cannot encompass it withlanguage. And so, they utter words (in this case, probably a morpheme) until it repeats over andover again, until a consensus is reached among the members of the group. Thus, a word isformed. Everything starts with sounds and utterances in creating a word. It happens because,according to Pinker, there is a gap in the lexicon that needs to be filled. This is a concept thateveryone wants to express but the word does not exist yet.
I think this reasoning supportsPinker’s views against language determinism above. In this case, the thought comes first. Theneed to express it modifies and/or adds to the language. Ergo, the language does not determine(stronger version) thought. A question that I want to ask is what about the cultures that do nothave equivalent terms yet for an experience. For example, there is no direct translation yet of?kilig? in the English language.
But that does not mean that English-speaking people do notexperience kilig. Then why is there still a lack of term for it? It is probably because the gaprefuses to be filled. I do not know and I do not have answer for it. Pinker related new wordproduction with the naming of child by their parents.I think here in the Philippines, the naming of children also is reflective of our collectivisticcultures and practices as a nation. Naming of a child is different from naming an object.
Thereare many factors at play. For example, some Filipino fathers would name their children afterthem and just suffix Jr. , the first, the second, or the third at the end of the name. This probablyRunning Head: The Power of Languagereflects the collectivistic culture of Filipinos as well as the patriarchal way of living. Why is notthere a female counterpart for junior? Why is it still not a valid name.
Is it simply a gap that isrefused to be filled? Or is it a gap that we do not really want to fill? In relation to the points byPinker in the book, we also name children based on the name of saints, heroes, and famousactors. Some parents would also like to give their children distinctive/unusual names. Oneprominent example also of naming here in the Philippines would be the combination of thename of the parents. Or it could also be the first letters of the names of the parents would be thefirst letters of the first name of the child. Naming is very personal especially, I think, in acollectivistic culture wherein families should be very intact.
I guess names are one way in orderto build harmony and connection within the family.The seventh chapter is about swearing and/or profanity. Going back to the first chapter,words have affective component and effect. Usage of profanity elicits strong emotional arousalon both the speaker and the receiver. Taboo words have biological roots. It is found in differentareas the brain but more on the neocortex: a region responsible for planning, perception, andknowledge and the limbic system (specifically, the amygdala).
Taboo words are unpleasant tohear because they are the involuntaries of speech perception. The examples written by Pinkerare all American swearing. But if we look into the Filipinos taboo words, it also reflects theimportance and priorities in our culture. Pinker’s propositions are also in line with the researchVingerhoets, et. al. (2013) that says that saying taboo words has a cathartic effect on thespeaker.
In the Philippine context, some of the taboo words include putangina mo, gago, bobo,mongoloid, hayop. Some directly attacks the individual but one of the most profane attacks notthe individual but the mother. This use of language probably explains the importance our culturegives to the female head of the house.Running Head: The Power of LanguageThe last chapter include discussion of another figurative language, indirect speech acts.Many people question the usage of other people of indirect speech acts.
Would not everythingbe more precise and easier if people would be direct with their messages. Unlike metaphors,indirect speech act do not have communal/ shared meanings. It is just saying one thing whileyou mean another different thing. Using indirect speech reveal something about us being socialbeings. Why do we use it? Pinker suggested that we have games that we play that are madepossible through the use of language. All of the things that was presented in this paper are justsome of the things that people do with words.
We saw how it is used to offer, to command, tocall, to threaten, to establish position, etc. All of the things they do somehow reveal somethingabout the speaker. It can, one way or another, affect relationships.
Given these, I think it is onlynatural for speakers to know that language can greatly affect the different aspects of their socialinteraction. Consciously or unconsciously, people know that the language they possess containpower that could make or break certain relationships. Pinker stated that the ultimate reason ourspeech could be so indirect may lie in a different danger of information—not that we might beoverwhelmed by how much there is, but that we might be poisoned by what it says. Just like thegaps that do not want to be filled in the process of naming above.
Pinker suggested that wehumans also have the tendency to disregard some messages because there might be thingsthat the rational mind may not want to receive. This is called Law of Indispensable Ignorance. Ithappens because we have the natural tendency to protect ourselves from possible extremeemotional effects.
Some of the examples he included: people who haven’t seen a movie or reada book will shun a review that gives away the ending, most of us would rather not know the daywhich we will die. From his examples, I do not think that he means a conscious way of avoiding.It is not a defense mechanism per se because it lacks the unconsciousness aspect of theconcept. However, I agree that the context and expectations of people in the future wouldprobably a reason why we have such law.Running Head: The Power of LanguageSometimes, we also choose to be ignorant in order to preserve the validity andobjectivity of our decisions.
Again, knowing something from the semantics of language inducesemotional/affective reactions from us that may cloud our decisions and judgements. Ultimately,we do it to protect ourselves. We cannot receive a threat if we are protected from the words wesay.All in all, Steven Pinker’s book provided interesting and witty insights about how we uselanguage in everyday living.
It stayed true to its objective to discuss and elaborate about thesemantics and pragmatics aspects of speech. The approach of the book is multi-faceted and itstenets support present empirical findings. However, one problem I saw about Steven Pinker’sarguments are that they are based on personal reflections and insights without muchpresentation of empirical data. Nevertheless, I think the book really supplemented thediscussions we had in class and would definitely give individuals interested in the psychology agreat deal of information regarding how the mind and language work hand-in-hand to providethe most powerful tools and mechanisms of human beings.And to quote Steven Pinker, ?Knowledge, then, can be dangerous because a rationalmind may be compelled to use it in rational ways.
This makes expressive power of language amixed blessing: it lets us learn what we want to know, but it also lets us learn what we don’twant to know. It is not just a window into human nature but a fistula: an open wound throughwhich our innards are exposed to an infectious world.?We could see how language is our power and that it is the stuff of our thought.Running Head: The Power of LanguageReferences:Carroll, D. (2004). Psychology of Language. Belmont: Thomson Higher Education.Linquist, K.
M. (2015). The role of language in emotion: predictions from psychologicalconstructionism. Front Psychology.Pinker, S. (2007). The Stuff of Thought.
New York: Penguin Group.Vingerhoets, A. B. (2013). Swearing: A Biopsychosocial Perspective. Psychological Topics.