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Book of the Month

January 22, 2009

Hello again,

Many books about language concern the minutiae of linguistics. In one of my various roles I edit academic papers many of which are about linguistics. Often I am struck by the futility ...

...of the debates that seem to set out to prove the self-evidently obvious. However, some authors are capable of dealing with the big issues and one such is Steven Pinker.
I remember the impact his Language Instinct made and I when I read it myself I was heartened to find how approachable was his style. Now I recommend to you The Stuff of Thought, which examines the way we use language to explore and shape ideas. Before reading Pinker’s book, my favourite study of this topic was Vygotsky’s Thought and Language, which is still a milestone in the field. But Pinker ‘s contribution is especially useful for us as teachers, as it explores some of those linguistic puzzles that we struggle to explain to students. Many words are almost synonymous but we find that they are not always interchangeable. Pinker gives a useful example. We can “fill a glass with water” but not “pour a glass with water”, yet to “pour water into a glass” means “fill it with water”. Pinker believes that such distinctions have a deep-seated logic that concerns the way our minds deal with experience and observation. We use language to provide emphasis, to see the same the event in different ways. Thus filling a glass puts an emphasis on the receptacle, while pouring water emphasises the liquid.
He takes key events such as 9/11 and shows how we use language to describe what happened and what we think happened according to our desire to look at it from one point of view or another. How many events really took place? How were they linked? How is that we can link events perpetrated by one set of people to the master plan of another? Language and how we use it reveals the way we structure and categorise our world. And even if the world we now inhabit is infinitely more complex than that of the distant past, we still try to reduce ideas to their simplest forms so that we can grasp them. Metaphor helps here. In an echo of Chomskyan concepts of a universal grammar, Pinker argues that the fundamental concepts of existence, the key forces and ides such as time, and space lead to a similarity of linguistic structure in diverse languages.
Purists argue that Pinker is a popularist but it is hard not to be convinced by the depth of his knowledge and then he is that rare breed: a an entertaining serious writer.

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