Running Head: Endless ThoughtsENDLESS THOUGHTSA Book Review on Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought2015 – 07342University of the Philippines, DilimanIn partial fulfillmentofPsychology 145: Psychology of LanguageEndless Thoughts 1There is much to learn and explore about the works of linguistics in the mind; how weacquire words from our environment, process it in the mechanisms of the mind, and producelanguage through writing, speech, or nonverbal gestures are simply the tip of the iceberg ofpsycholinguistics. True enough, one is not alone in this continuous voyage into the unknownparts of the human mind, as psycholinguists themselves are unceasingly perplexed bylanguage. No stranger to this crew of insatiable learners is Steven Pinker, the author of TheStuff of Thought: Language into the Window of Human Nature. In Pinker’s book, any novice tothe realm of psycholinguistics can read this novel and be brought upon the realization thatlanguage is not just about words or thought.
Language immensely extends to emotions, culture,and a worldview — all of these connections to language touch on a different dimension ofsomething so humble yet powerful, the very essence of human nature in the light of ourutterances and cognitive processes.Steven Pinker found that the best way to go about discussing this prevalence oflanguage is by presenting arguments and examples that contain insight, entertainment, andpure evidence of the way people are today because of language. Pinker adds his own flare tothe four dimensions of psycholinguistics.
He touches on how people gather meanings of wordsfrom different communities, feelings, and events in the world, and describes how we findconcreteness in a concept based on its prevalence as a product of substance, time, space, andcausality. Pinker emphasizes syntax as a motion of language, especially in the development ofchildren and how they form nouns and verbs. He also discusses sounds and phonetics abouthow we express tact or dissent even in the most abrupt statements like swearing aloud and thelike. Most of all, Pinker stresses the pragmatics of language — how “fifty thousand innateconcepts” are actually an infinite number of acquired concepts in the world throughdevelopment, and how everyday speech has turned into a metaphor itself.
The text shows howpeople name names and seek uniqueness through language, and ultimately, how language isthe means of escaping ambiguity and finding one’s true humanity. Pinker captures all of these!Endless Thoughts 2concepts through recent evidences that translate the idea of human nature, making this novelmore significant than ever to the society of twenty-first century movers and shakers.A general evaluation of the novel is that The Stuff of Thought is more than what firstmeets the eye. Behind its witty chapter titles and entertaining demeanor, it stands as an entirework of research by Pinker. This piece had a critical approach that disproved myths aboutlanguage and its facets. Through this critical approach, Pinker is able to empower new insightsin his readers by presenting the many extremes of a particular situation that encounters the useof language.
Not much theories are generated in this book; rather, Pinker draws inspiration fromother theories to create a picture of humans in society. As the book acknowledges interactionbetween humans, Pinker stresses how the creativity of humans molds simple exchanges tobecome an intricate sharing of knowledge, and ultimately of themselves, in a meager activity weknow as discourse. Through critiquing the positive and negative instances in the real world,Pinker helps laymen set a just standard for a better world where proper communication andclear judgements are made. This action becomes the resolution of the book, which his readersare expected to lift from the text and use the ubiquitous knowledge from the book in true-to-lifeapplications of the author’s examples. Through this review, one can find some of the mostimportant arguments in the text and how they have related to common notions and basicconcepts in psycholinguistics, particularly those mentioned in my lessons. It is hoped that thisreview imparts Pinker’s main thought: language, with its countless conditionals andcounterfactual arguments, still contains its basic elements for it to uphold its credibility andpower as a function of communicating.Beyond language acquisitionKnowing the ins and outs of language is one thing; however, acquiring the languageitself is probably a tougher feat that psycholinguists still have a tough time comprehending andexplaining today.
Pinker highlights the acquisition of verbs in children as they use their nativelanguage as a microcosm of the universe where all ideals are possible. Children use syntax toanalyze how these verbs are being used by their kin. The ultimate triumph of acquisition is when!Endless Thoughts 3a child is able to facilitate language induction. However, Pinker also describes the paradox inbaby talk towards children; inasmuch as this aids learning, children tend to generalize and donot acknowledge the words that have been omitted from baby talk. This pertains to Pinker’scontainer locative structure, which is the stark contrast of constructive locative structure whichadults must build in children.Language induction is indeed the goal of psycholinguistics in developing a child’s verbalability. Simply learning the alphabet and short words are not sufficient to reach this goal.
Inpsycholinguistics, baby talk is a strategy to elicit language induction in children. We also gatherevidences about why or why not baby talk or motherese is a good or bad option in speaking to!one’s children. For instance, children from a study in Russia are exposed to bilingualism by theircaregivers, and through their analysis of syntax in a primary, more superior language, they areable to learn that language (in this case, Russian) better.
(Smagulova, 2014) Pinker fails to addmany important details between the beginnings of language induction to the peak of it. Includedin this development would be intentional gestures and communication which Pinker fails tomention. Without such signs, one might be mistaken an accidental utterance as languageinduction.
But does language induction really stop at the peak of development? Pinker citesvarious examples of language induction in his book, from learning to attach proper prepositionsand reversing active statements to become passive ones. We also adjust to the times bylearning the new forms of language created by people and influenced by social media, whetheror not this is ideal for linguists. This proves that language induction is not necessarily to peak ortriumph of language acquisition. Beyond language induction is language adaptation, being opento learning new things about language. There is no endpoint for this, so children, and thechildren at heart, really never stop acquiring new forms of language.
The gears behind wordsIn each utterance, there are infinite possibilities of word combinations one can use.Words, in fact, are the foundation for a sensible utterance. This may seem like a simple concept,Endless Thoughts 4but words in themselves have an infinite number of phonetic combinations as well to create a”sound and letter combination” that refers to an object or phenomenon. One can drawarguments from Pinker’s writings about words. When thought about, it is man’s tendency toname things in their environment. Pinker describes the basic elements by which a personconsiders an object to have a name: it must have substance, must be present in time andspace, must be a product or constituent of causality and other worldly factors. Although thehuman mind is inconsistent and mostly unreadable, people attempt to name things that have aknown existence.
The counterfactual theory presented by Pinker provides a conflict against this— that one event will always cause another, and another, and so on. This continues to havemany issues; however Pinker points out that in understanding the world, one is able to slowlydisregard the infinite effects of a single cause.People also name the people around them; it can be argued that the power of givingnames to people is one of the strongest examples of personal agency in psycholinguistics. Ingiving names, parents attempt to make their children become unique; more often than not, firstimpressions have a lasting impact.
Additionally, Pinker argues that the power of a name isimmense, that names are not simply abbreviated descriptions; rather they are rigid designatorsthat should set one thing apart from another. However, in this constant struggle to be uniquewith a distinct designator, one faces the danger of being the “same kind of unique” with otherindividuals, which does not lead to being unique any longer. The same dilemma is found innaming objects and events. Sometimes, one may resort to simply putting words togetherinstead of coming up with a new word; although, at times, names and words are made for newexperiences.
An example would be how typhoons are named in the Philippines. Throughout theyear, major rains that enter the area of responsibility are named based on a set list ofalphabetized names. There are four different sets that are used alternately as the years go by.
Thus, the strong typhoon Juan in 2010 cannot be differentiated with the same Juan that!occurred four years later or four years back. (Tropical Cycle Names, 2017) In this strife to beEndless Thoughts 5unique with naming the typhoons, there are still two of the same name that are alike and aredifficult to tell apart.Adding to this list of unique instances of naming would be swearing, using foul language.Expressions screamed or whispered to oneself all signify that one is giving a name to an eventthat was an extreme of its kind. Cursing proves the fact that some words can be divided into twoperceptions: a connotation and a denotation.
A denotation is the dictionary definition of a word,while the connotation implies that a word has a meaning beyond its definition. Swear wordsarrive at a connotation that is beyond its denoted meaning due to cultural and personal!experiences. In a thematic analysis conducted by Fägersten (2017), she found that Swedishcomic books use English swear words to capture humor and vulgarity. This global stance on themeanings of these swear words indicate the presence of a shared background knowledgedespite different cultures and norms of appropriateness. Moreover, this construction ofmeanings opens the possibility that virtually any word, with popular opinion and usage, canbecome a swear word.
Although one does not want for this to happen, this simply illustrates thepower of human choice on words and how one builds connections in the mind.The existence of these associations in one’s head are solidified by Pinker’s argument bysaying that one organizes experiences to relate to one another. This in fact is the internallexicon, wherein people connect ideas and concepts to easily retrieve them. One’s wordknowledge lies in the long-term memory, so one practices different forms of storage, encoding,and retrieval to arrive at these words. Pinker is accurate by saying that words are very powerful,and they dominate the main focal points of language.
However, Pinker does not mention howinfinite the span of words possibilities really are. More importantly, can people’s minds store aninfinite number of words? One can imagine a longer list of swear words, more names of friendswho one meets in passing, and simply a loot of other objects and experiences one has to findnames for. Despite the indefinite nature of the capacity of the long-term memory, are words trulyas powerful as we describe them to be to remain present in one’s mind after time and space,and even instances like causality and counter factuality?Endless Thoughts 6Walk the talkPinker’s chapter on fifty thousand innate concepts was introduced with a concept byJerry Fodor to show the innateness of people’s linguistic capabilities. This suggests thatlexicons are limited to a group of native concepts that are simple building blocks of cognition.The definitions in these concepts are still incomplete, and one’s development, experience, andlearning as a human being are what will cause elaboration and expertise in these fields. Pinkerseems to have agreed for some parts of the innateness of language; however, he alsocontradicts the idea due to radical pragmatism. This states that there is no single concept todescribe anything, acknowledging the importance of context in identifying meaning.
This alsopresents the case of polysemy wherein multiple meanings for a single word or phrase coexist.However, radical pragmatism lacks mental representation in evidence. It can also cause conflictbetween a speaker and listener due to the varying perceptions in meaning and concepts.Pinker introduces an evidence to radical pragmatism in his chapter on Games PeoplePlay. He introduces social ambiguity, and like in the chapter on innate concepts, there liesconflict between a speaker and listener. This is reversed with politeness, and as meager as itsounds, genuine courtesy has a large impact of making sure equality is perceived correctly.
However, the politeness theory is not enough. One must practice communal sharing, authorityranking, and equality matching to get respectfulness across effectively. Moreover, beingpresent-minded with tactfulness can decrease this conflict. This in totality suggests a scheme oflanguage being acquired because of the consideration of people to think about their listenerwhen speaking. This shows learning of social cues through language, one that is notnecessarily innate in people from any culture or place.Language is discussed to have two extremes: what we want to know and what we do notwant to know. In light of innateness, today’s current arguments point to language having somefactors innate and others acquired; but, one might want to visit the extremes of language andfind out if it is completely innate or acquired. We might not want to know if language is innate oracquired because of the complex factors or the consequences that come after knowing this!Endless Thoughts 7superior capability of the human mind.
However, if we do choose to know the truth about innateand acquired language, we must understand it in its totality and integrate this capability withother processes in the brain, not study it independently. Also, we must use its implications toimprove human knowledge and the means by which we perceive and produce language.The mind is a metaphorThe idea of a metaphor is one that is learned in the early years of education, how it isused as a figure of speech to show the similarity of two concepts through literary creativity.
Pinker now introduces a larger coverage of metaphors, in what is known as conceptualmetaphors. These stress that metaphors are not meant to be solely creative, but are meant todescribe an underlying concept that is prevalent in a circumstance. If this is not too big of a featto grasp quite yet, Pinker is equipped with a more astounding claim, that conceptual metaphorsare in all of one’s utterances due to the meaning that has been built for the expression.
Thehistory of a single phrase or expression has been assembled to refer to a specific object, event,or feeling. Since people in the past continuously used these creative assignments for things,what once was a metaphorical meaning is now known to be the actual definitions for words.Although this seems a little overwhelming, we need to look at the pros and cons of this situation.!Carroll (2008) discusses that metaphors communicate experiential information — people makemetaphors out of what they have realized to be similar because of their experiences. On theother hand, there are evidences that metaphors ruling the language world are not so favorable.Morgan (1980) states that in building theories and explanations of the universe, metaphors limitthe productivity of a theorist. This could lead to detrimental effects to the purity of ideas, ifeverything were just about creativity and generating new literary meanings rather than findingbetter relations with the current meanings society has. Additionally, there are problems offraming in a metaphor that hinder the speaker from effectively getting his point across.
Despitethese positive and negative instances of metaphors in society, the most important matter ofmetaphors is that they make abstract concepts more concrete. Metaphors are meant to beliterary devices, not beliefs that are completely ingrained in our minds. The freedom ofEndless Thoughts 8metaphors is the creative truth elicited in language expression. This is truly what the worldneeds today as the ambiguity of intangible concepts are harder to describe and comprehend.There are two opposing theories of metaphors that Pinker points out in the text. TheKilljoy Theory states that metaphors have long been dead, while the Messianic Theory statesthat metaphors are the saviors to understanding the world through language. The text statesthat the Messiah of metaphors has not yet come, but what exactly are people expecting tooccur? One can argue that the existence of metaphors also poses various perceptions ofpeople. Viewing the world to function under metaphors or simple words can lead to a differentworldview and cognitive disposition.
Also, acknowledging that metaphors are still prevalent andavoiding the “killjoy” means that society remains open-minded to the many possibilities withlanguage. Pinker argues that metaphors are only in one’s memory but are effectively dead in themind. Nevertheless, metaphors are key features to explain thought and language.Thought into actionThe last chapter in Pinker’s book focuses on the main takeaways from the book. Asmentioned earlier, everything in the world is a conceptual metaphor because of the power oflanguage. In acknowledging the meanings of words and constructions made by the mind, one ismore likely to learn human nature and its implications. This also links to another psychologicalconcept, the Whorf Hypothesis. Language influences the thought of the human mind, which inturn influences culture since a society thinks consistently due to their common language.
Through years, the conceptual metaphors of a community continuously grow, with the meaningsbehind these etched in their minds due to the common language and subsequently, thecommon culture. (Kay & Kemption, 1984, as cited in Rusiyanadi, n.d.) Acknowledging the WhorfHypothesis in Pinker’s claims also brings one to the fact that linguistic relativity exists. Howpeople view a situation is due to the language they speak and the culture they are immersed in,different from what other civilizations are speaking, and therefore, different from what they arethinking. It is this division that makes conceptual metaphors an even more powerful tool oflanguage, as conceptual metaphors are engrained in a large-scale movement that is culture.
!Endless Thoughts 9Language is public, and today, it is even digital. We seem to be creating a new era ofconceptual metaphors as current dwellers of the world with the digital age. People are able toutilize technology and their world-wide reach to make a global community with a sharedlanguage through culture-building and the power of the human mind.This novel is an interesting albeit lengthy read. Psycholinguistics may seem quite vagueand indecisive, especially for beginners in this topic, so having more tangible and relatableexamples and experiences from this book can urge one to think more about the implicationspsycholinguistics in the real world. In fact, one can realized that psycholinguistics is arguablyone of the main driving forces of language itself. One can appreciate how the book approachedan explicit thought process for young readers, budding psychologists, to grasp the conceptsbetter despite the general ambiguity of mental processes.
This truly has opened the “black box”of psycholinguistics that early behaviorists would have disagreed to. Despite these good points,the concepts in the book would at times get too technical apart from the field ofpsycholinguistics. To relate such themes to practical scenarios, Pinker added many scientificcitations and small historic events that sometimes did not play well due to their complexity andinexplicit assumptions. Admittedly, some also go unnoticeable in the grand scheme of events,so some instances were not as great of examples as those that truly stuck out in culture, history,or in language. While reading, one can attempt to relate his own experiences more than whatPinker presented, which was probably the goal of this book; but, one might have had a betterapproach if the theories were supported better in the environment which millennials or youngprofessionals are accustomed to. After all, this is the next generation to invest in the knowledgeof language; thus, this book could have focused their target on this type of audience.A great insight from reading this book is the malleability of language rules despite rigiddesignators in semantics, syntax theories, and controlled sound processing. The way humansfind new meanings for words and change its function, even simply finding new words andconcepts albeit more popular in the youth — these goes to show that language is continuouslyexpanding in all directions, in all disciplines and relations.
However, the malleability of language!Endless Thoughts 10that the book stands by is also troublesome, as one is tasked to find an answer to what theextent of this malleability really is. Discussions revolve around new words being discovered andlanguages combining to form trendier utterances; but truly, does this hint to an inevitableimpurity of native languages? The same plays out for other foreign languages — in trying topreserve the holistic nature of the speech and writings of their ancestors, societies are met withshortcuts, combinations, and replacements that slowly deteriorate the essence of the language.!For instance, a Philippine-grown Indonesian dialect known as Ponosakan had four fluentspeakers at the time it was last studied.
The endangerment of this language is due to thecombinations of consonants that it has similar with other Indonesian dialects in nearby locations,leading to its soon extinction despite its uniqueness and distinct characteristics. (Lobel, 2015)With this being one way for the future of language to become, there lie infinite other meansunbeknownst to humans that may come to alleviate or delineate the situation of language today.Arthur C.
Clarke, a scientist and science-fiction author, wrote: “Either two possibilities exist, thatwe are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Similarly, this booktackles two extremes about the universality of language, either it is finite or it is not, and bothare equally hazardous and rather frightening if one considers the longevity of a pure language.To fathom a finite expansion of language also implies that human creativity is finite, but maybe,inasmuch as one would like to be infinite, it truly is limited. On the other hand, an infiniteexpansion of language leaves it difficult to comprehend, study, and articulate. People will shift intheir thinking, speaking, and comprehending, that no one theory can grasp what humanlanguage is about.
However, one can now question the reality of language. Maybe it is meant to be finite,with its sets of rules, pragmatic settings, and default theories as described by Carroll, Pinker,and other renowned psycholinguists. The challenge is to entertain the thought of a languagethat grows infinitely. It seems difficult, unreachable, even a tad impossible; but if one lives withthis notion, he might find that the true stuff of thought is not one, not many, but an infinite set ofdata points that all point to the complex beauty of language.
Endless Thoughts !11ReferencesCarroll, D. W. (2008). Psychology of language. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.
Fägersten, K. B. (2017). English-language swearing as humor in Swedish comic strips. Journalof Pragmatics, 121, 175-187. doi:10.
014Kay, P. and Kempton, W. (1984). Presented by Rusiyanadi, N.
(n.d.). What is the Sapir-Whorfhypothesis? Retrieved December 14, 2017, from http://www.blutner.de/color/SapirWhorf.pdfLobel, J. W.
(2015). Ponosakan: A Dying Language of Northeastern Sulawesi. OceanicLinguistics, 54(2), 396-435. doi:10.1353/ol.
2015.0022Smagulova, J. (2014). Early language socialization and language shift: Kazakh as Baby Talk.Journal of Sociolinguistics, 18(3), 370-387. doi:10.1111/josl.
12078The Philippine Tropical Cyclone Names. (2017, November 18). Retrieved December 14, 2017,from http://www.typhoon2000.ph/names.htm