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Running Head: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |1It’s All About the Wordplay:A Book Review on Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought2014-29259University of the Philippines – Diliman, Quezon CityIn partial fulfilment of the coursePsychology 145: Psychology of LanguageSubmitted to:Professor Ramon Joseph A. DagumanDecember 15, 2017IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |2Words have always permeated human social structure and interest in how deeplylanguage can seep through human existence has been widespread as of late, with numerousbooks chronicling how language holds humanity. One of them is by Steven Pinker, who has setout on the immense venture of investigating how people can be understood through language inThe Stuff of Thought. Pinker navigates his readers through his ideas, building them as thereader goes along. With a specific emphasis on verbs, he analyzes the roles of language andcollates his thoughts on its connection to cognition. He starts with his fascination on verbs, thenproceeds to several chapters, chronicling how thought is permeated by language in general inthe form of metaphors, concepts of space and time, and even taboo words, all the while anddabbling into theories of language. He is visibly well-versed in these frameworks to the point ofbeing able to argue against them. The relevance of his musings is widespread because hisassertions are backed by worldly examples, connecting his reflections to quotidian affairs. Notonly does he provide readers with the perspicacity on how language moves the human mind,such as how abstract ideas are made into concrete objects to become more digestible, he alsoasserts how language, as a growing entity, conforms to constructs to a certain extent.Reading the book required much mental faculty because Pinker skirts around points andkeeps referring back to obscure details. He uses words opulently, sometimes losing the readerin his deep-seated metaphors. Moreover, there are instances when he is unclear on certaintopics, even parts where he seems to contradict himself in his tenacity to disprove while footingforward his own ideas. Nevertheless, there were many lessons that I was able to ruminate aboutthroughout my perusal of the book. Some of his points that I concerned myself with were hisview of verbs and their role in meaning in sentences, the problem of how children learnlanguage, his viewpoints on extreme nativism, linguistic determinism, conceptual semantics,and metaphors.IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |3Pinker seems to have an overt fascination with verbs and how they are employed insentences. The centrality of the verb in his book is summarized in the excerpt: “A verb, then, isnot just a word that refers to an action or state but the chassis of the sentence. It is a frameworkwith receptacles for other parts” (Pinker, 2007). Pinker seems to be transfixed with how the verbis the “chassis of language”, with all the words revolving their meaning on the placement andpurpose of the verb (Pinker, 2007). It appears that he has minimized the role of othercomponents in the sentence, even boldly declaring that these just conform to the verb. I find thisquite problematic, mostly because there is another component of the sentence which I deem tobe equally important: the noun phrase. It is quite well known that a sentence structure isprimarily composed of two phrases: the Noun Phrase (NP) and the Verb Phrase (VP) (Carroll,2008). NPs can be broken down further into the determiner and the noun, while the maincomponent for VPs is the verb. Although the verb is significant in its contribution to the meaningof the sentence, the role of the noun cannot be discounted. Logically, a basic sentence exists onthe basis of those two entities. Although the VP can have the verb stand alone its solecomponent, verbs still need nouns in order to deliver meaning. Using an example in the book,Pinker (2007) states that the sentences Norm gave a pashmina and Norm received a pashminagreatly differ in meaning only because of the change in the verb. However, the same can besaid for changing the noun. Norm gave a pashmina is vastly different from Norm gave a rabbit.The two meanings of the sentences differed just by swapping the noun simply because thesemantics are not the same anymore. It does not change the notion that Norm gave something,but since what he gave was different it cannot be deduced as the same meaning nor as thesame sentence. Hence, although it is the verb that determines the purpose of the subject, it isthe noun that helps the verb deliver its role. There are also cases when certain verbs cannot beused with certain nouns, meaning there are instances when the noun dictates the verb that willgo with it. One does not say fight lemons or see sounds, but rather, peel lemons and hearIT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |4sounds. Therefore, nouns can also dictate meaning to an extent, especially since there are onlynumber of verbs that are allowed to be associated with it if one wants to make perfect sense.Although I have misgivings about Pinker’s minimizing the role of the noun phrase, I doagree that the verb has power over the meaning of the sentence. Pinker (2007) asserts thatverbs have the final say. Although nouns can dictate the plethora of words that can be used inassociation with it, the final decision of the precise meaning of the sentence rests in the verb inthe noun-verb relationship. The noun door can be used with the words open and close, butchoosing open would decide that the door is not closed. This process is quite similar to theCohort Model in auditory word recognition. The model asserts that the process in recognizingthe word starts with recognition, where a certain word is accessed, then different words areassessed against one another before the chosen word is integrated (Marslen-Wilson, 1987). Insummary, the most appropriate word is chosen in selection. This process of thinking can beapplied to how certain nouns and verbs go together. Once a noun is put into place, manydifferent verbs come into mind that can be used with the noun – similar to the access stage. Averb is chosen amongst the choices, and finally, is integrated into the sentence. However, asmuch as the noun has a say in what verbs can be used with it, once the verb is put into place, itdefines where the sentence will go. Different verbs are generated in context to the noun thatwas used, but it is ultimately the verb that solidifies the final stance of the sentence. Althoughnouns take a backstage in this book in favor of the verb, the other arguments that he has onother aspects of the verb are quite exceptional.Pinker (2007) believes that verbs are important because it is through verbs that we cantake a partial glimpse of the workings of the human mind, mostly through how childrenthemselves learn these verbs. He asserts that “the most remarkable thing we do with languageis learn it in the first place.” In order to be masters of language, babies need to be able to beadept in gestures, meaning, language structure and how language is used according to socialcontext before they are able to be deemed proficient in their own language (Parish-Morris,IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |5Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pashek, 2013). Pinker (2007) argues that part of children’s learning oflanguage goes beyond rote memorization. Children must have analyzed the language aroundthem in order to fully supplement their observations of the language that they are trying todecode, including how verbs convey meaning. In this respect, Pinker is on the right track.Carroll (2008) provides evidence that children are at least actively thinking about the differentways words can be constructed in overextensions and underextensions. Overextensions areinstances when children overly apply a certain rule of language while underextensions are whenchildren restrict the usage of a word in one context. Pinker (2007) provides examples of thesephenomena in the following phrases: (1) All the animals are wake-upped, and (2) Don’t tickleme, I’m laughable. He concludes that they must have arrived on it on their own instead ofhaving learned it from an outside source (i.e. parents). Overextensions and underextensionsprovide backing to his claim, with his examples mostly using overextensions. Sentence (1)probably arose from the child deducing that in order to verbalize events that happened in thepast, one must add -ed to the end of the verb, which is an example of an overextension of arule. Sentence (2) may have originated from incorrect usage of the term laughable, however, itis not in itself a wrong word. Children might have heard this word pertain to something thatemits laughter, which in this case would be a sound excuse as to why the child would employthe term here – another example of overextension. These linguistic mechanisms may as well beinnate, as can be explained further by a theory formulated by Noam Chomsky.How do children go from making amusing grammatical mistakes to becoming maestrosof the language? Pinker (2007) believes that language acquisition is key and he employs NoamChomsky’s innate Universal Grammar to help explain this. Children have a natural inclination tolanguage and Pinker (2007) asserts that children’s universal grammar includes how central theverb is in construction. My sentiments on the centrality of the verb have already been indicated,but I do agree that children have a natural inclination to language. Even at a young age, childrengo through developmental processes that lead to their success in using it. They start theirIT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |6linguistic journey through crying, before cooing and then babbling, before eventually reachingone-word and two-word utterances. The evidence of the innateness of children’s languageacquisition is positioned in the fact that the developmental milestones of children around theworld are the same (Santrock, 2017). Although I am at odds with Pinker on his stance on verbsin general, especially since the acquisition of nouns at an early age is important in languageslike English, I do support his claim of the natural inclination to developing language.Apart from being a staunch supporter of verb importance, Pinker also adheres to thenotion of innateness. Pinker is profoundly well-versed in his belief in the innateness of languagethat he can introduce theories that both contradict and supplement his viewpoint on languagelearning being inherent, which he deduced guided children in their journey in becomingcompetent users of language. He introduced Fodor’s Theory of Extreme Nativism, a viewpointhe vehemently opposes, and Linguistic Determinism, a theoretical standpoint that he alsocriticizes. Fodor’s theory of Extreme Nativism is founded on a number of arguments, some ofthem including the similarity in the level of difficulty in understanding complex concepts andsimple concepts, the innateness of unexplainable concepts, the role of environment in triggeringthe inherent concept, and the surprisingly bold statement of having fifty thousand innateconcepts. The last argument is mentioned as being unsupported by evidence, and frankly, isone that I find too bold and far-fetched. Although a believer of the intrinsic property of language,Pinker (2007) contradicts many arguments in Fodor’s theory, the first being that word meaningscannot be decomposed into more basic concepts. Pinker (2007) argues Fodor is mistaken andthe author uses verbs to support his claim, saying that verbs are “composed of smaller andsmaller particles”. Simple action verbs can have meaning components and would, therefore, be”splittable”, making them not innate and basic. With this simple argument, he disproves many ofFodor’s claims. This is quite similar to the notion that word knowledge can be split into a varietyof different kinds of meaning, such as a word’s denotation and connotation. Denotations are thedictionary definitions of the word, while connotation is the implied meaning of it (Carroll, 2008).IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |7Denotations can be straightforward, but the state of being “splittable” cannot be applied to theword’s many connotations, rendering a basic verb not innate because of the multiple layers ofmeanings behind it. It is possible to split the connotations into simpler terms, however, to do sowould be to miss the nuances that made it a connotation in the first place. For example, the verbscavenge has a basic dictionary meaning of ‘to look for and collect garbage’, but in Filipino popculture, scavenge would mean ‘to collect bodies of Filipinos in the Martial Law era’. It is possibleto split the meaning of this sentence to just ‘collecting’, but it would be a disservice to itsconnotation and the context that it is used in. The connotational meaning of the verb scavengeis not innate because it is founded on culture, but it is atomic in the sense that splitting it wouldbutcher its meaning. This made it confusing to people as to whether or not innateness isgrounded in its ability to be broken apart into pieces.Additionally, Fodor makes a bold claim that simple concepts are as equallyunderstandable as complex concepts. He uses the words parent and father, arguing that fatheris as easily understood as the concept of parent. I disagree with this on the basis of a feature ofthe Hierarchical Network Model called basic-level terms. These are not arranged the same wayin a hierarchy, with parent being the umbrella term and father being a more specific example.The term parent is the hypernym of the term father, and thus would be higher in the level oforganization. According to Carroll (2008), items that are higher in hierarchy tend to be harder toaccess, and therefore understand. This means that more complex concepts, or at least those inhigher levels, would have a higher level of difficulty in terms of comprehension – a contradictionto Fodor’s claim of equivalence. Fodor’s claims seem too bold for one that is sorely lacking inempirical evidence to back it, and in this, Pinker and I coincide.While I do agree with Pinker’s contesting of Fodor’s theory, I am not united with him inhis arguments against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. He seems to have grouped the Sapir-WhorfHypothesis and Extreme Nativism in the same chunk of theories that he opposes, although theSapir-Whorf hypothesis veers from Extreme Nativism in a number of ways that are relevant toIT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |8this discussion. Unlike Fodor’s theory that the inherent concept is triggered by the environment,the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis does the opposite, stating that language determines cognition,making language determine concepts, rather than just being triggered. Furthermore, the SapirWhorf hypothesis argues that because different languages cause different levels of cognition,the difficulty of concepts across people are different (Carroll, 2008). This is contradictory toFodor’s idea that all concepts are equally difficult (Pinker, 2007). One evidence of culturedetermining variations in comprehension is how different languages understand numbers.Research shows that languages that differ in the manner that they grammatically mark numberinfluence the rate that they learn certain numerical concepts. Children in Saudi Arabia andSlovenia, whose languages have a specific language marker for duals, learn the number twoearlier than children who speak English (Almoammer, Sullivan, Donlan, Marusic, Zaucer,O’Donnell, & Barner, 2013). For English-speaking children who have not grasped the numbertwo yet, the concept would be more difficult for them to understand than their Saudi-Arabiancounterparts. Interestingly, as much as this disproves Fodor’s theory, it does not do much forPinker’s perception of linguistic determinism.Although Pinker does agree that, to some extent, environment influences language andcognition, he is still critical of linguistic determinism. Pinker is not convinced that studies, suchas those by Almoammer and colleagues (2013), would make linguistic determinism a liablestand. He insists that language is not needed in order to develop mathematical reasoning, evenin light of numerous studies stating otherwise – studies that are supportive of the Sapir-Whorfhypothesis (Pinker, 2007). Even more confusing is Pinker’s notion a few chapters later thatabstract concepts cannot be understood without the use of metaphors. Pinker (2007) assertsthat metaphors are vehicles in language used in order to make sense of abstract concepts. It isquite ironic, that mathematics, which is abstract in its own right, was deemed to beunderstandable without the use of a functional language when he believes that metaphors areone of the primary ways for people to grasp them. I think that language is needed in order toIT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |9understand mathematics and, in this respect, is at least supportive of the Sapir-Whorfhypothesis that Pinker contests.There are also others who contest Pinker’s grey-tinted view of linguistic determinism.Wierzbicka (1997) also countered Pinker in his obvious dismissal of linguistic determinism andhow language in general shapes thought. Although Pinker (2007) points out many differentcounterarguments to supporting studies on the Sapir-Whorfian perspective (ie. debunking thestudy on Tzeltal speakers’ conception of space), Wierzbicka (1997) states that the absence ofthe fact does not disprove the notion that language affects cognition. She supports her claim ofthe link between language and thought with the presence of bilingualism, arguing that anyonewho speaks more than one language can clearly see the effects of it and how its consequencesbleed externally. Bilingualism affects metalinguistics awareness because, with two languages, aperson gains two ways that he can make sense of the environment (Carroll, 2008). One suchexample can be seen through the concept of miai in Japan, a term that describes the custom ofintroducing a man and a woman in the hopes of matrimony. Wierzbicka (1997) gave an exampleof a man, despite having learned English, who has incorporated the ritual of miai in hisvocabulary. He does not replace this word with the English word courtship, but ratherincorporates the Japanese term because it is understood that it is a different way of seeing twopeople who are interested in each other in the matrimonial sense. Pinker is biased in theconclusions he puts forth after disproving studies, marking them as proof that language holdslittle, if no, influence on the thought processes of people, even if evidence tries to shed light onthe existence of a link. Even his definition of conceptual semantics is a paradox, saying that it isthe language of thought but is separate from language, almost implying that language has thecapability of separating from itself, which is the kind of conundrum that would make readersquite confused as to what Pinker’s point is. Further complicating the problem is the fact thatconceptual semantics as a whole is vague. Jackendoff (1990) states that conceptual semanticsdeals with how internal mental representations of conceptual structure include internal mentalIT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |10representations and it is concerned with how they interact with one another. This is a definitionthat is vague and hard to understand. Not only is Pinker’s viewpoint difficult to comprehend andbiased, he provides unclear explanations, if any, about the idea to assuage his readers.The last viewpoint that I became interested in was his idea on metaphors. He links verbsto metaphors, as well as other abstract concepts (Pinker, 2007). Metaphors can be defined as atype of figurative language that has a literal and an underlying meaning that do not necessarilycoincide (Carroll, 2008). Most of his argument calls back to the Conceptual Metaphor Theory,which he uses extensively to assert his point that our perception of experience is heavily aidedby metaphors (Pinker, 2007). According to Lakoff and Johnson (1980), who formulated theConceptual Metaphor Theory, metaphors are not merely colorful words that are used to flowerspeech. Instead, they serve a deeper purpose for understanding. This has some backing,seeing as a metaphor is composed of the following parts: the tenor, the vehicle, and the ground.The example in the book of a metaphor is time is space, with the tenor being time, the vehiclebeing space, and the ground being that both cannot be encompassed accurately, are abstract,and are both in need of concrete tools in order to measure them accurately (ie. time ismeasured by the clock and space can be measured by a ruler). Despite the theory backing hisclaim, I think it is a bold statement to say that metaphors permeate abstract ideas extensively tothe point that we think in terms of metaphors. My skepticism is largely due to the nature of theConceptual Metaphor Theory, that states that verbal metaphors would automatically activate theunderlying conceptual metaphor (Gibbs, 1994). This is questioned in a study by Glucksberg,Keysar, and McGlone (1992). The study shook the notion by proving how activation of the moredormant conceptual metaphor does not necessarily happen all the time. Since the conceptualmetaphor was not activated in the study, it would be quite a stretch to still assert that we alwaysthink in terms of metaphors when there was a failure of activation in this part. With Pinkerreasoning that we always think in terms of metaphors, seeing an exception sparks my doubt, aswell as curiosity on his claim.IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |11Pinker’s ideas are daring and revolutionary, which forced me to see language in a newlight. It is a challenging read because Pinker certainly knows how to make his readers think. Hisideas were eye-opening and surprisingly humbling. While I have studied psycholinguistics, I amnowhere near his level in prose and insight. I may have disagreed with his ideas to a certainextent, however, I acknowledge that with increasing knowledge comes the possibility that I maybe open to his musings in the future. This has made me be more eager to explore the field ofpsycholinguistics once Pinker has opened the chasm of possibilities. A few questions havelingered in my mind as I close. Since I have misgivings about the conceptual semanticperspective and since I know of the flaws evident in linguistic determinism, is there anotherframework that would adequately join these harmoniously? Is it possible that instead ofmetaphors, we may be able to perceive as the world as is when we encode it? And finally, sincethese arguments were based on research, is it possible to have an experiment that fully provesthe theory it backs? Apart from these questions, more research in the field of metaphors andtheir history, as well as future experiments based on conceptual semantics to further drive newdiscoveries of language forward, would further deepen my appreciation of linguistics. Theseruminations, open-ended as they may be, will serve not only as a means of contemplation butalso as a starting point for me to go deeper in my education of language.IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORDPLAY |12ReferencesAlmoammer, A., Sullivan, J., Donlan, C., Marusic, F., Zaucer, R., O’Donell, T., & Barner, D.(2013). Grammatical morphology as a source of early number word meanings. Proceedingsof the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(46), 18448-18453.Carroll, D. (2008). Psychology of Language. (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth Ed.Gibbs, R. (1994). Figurative thought and figurative language. In M. A. Gernsbacher (Ed.),Handbook of psycholinguistics. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.Glucksberg, S., Keysar, B., & McGlone, M. (1992). Metaphor understanding and accessingconceptual schema: Reply to Gibbs (1992). Psychological Review, 99, 3-18Jackendoff, R. (1990). Semantic Structures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Keysar, B., Shen, Y., Glucksberg, S., & Horton, W. (2000). Conventional language: howmetaphorical is it? Journal of Memory and Language, 43, 576-593.Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Marslen-Wilson, W. (1987). Functional parallelism in spoken word-recognition. Cognition, 25,71-102.Parish-Morris, J., Golinkoff, R.M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2013). From coo to code: A brief story oflanguage development. In P.D. Zelazo (Ed.), Oxford handbook of developmentalpsychology. New York: Oxford University Press.Pinker, S. (2007). The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature. New York,NY: Viking.Santrock, J. (2017). Life-Span Development. (16th Ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill Education.Wierzbicka (1997). Understanding Cultures Through Their Key Words: English, Russian, Polish,German and Japanese. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.  


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