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Steven Pinker: What our language habits reveal


This is a picture of Maurice Druon, the Honorary Perpetual Secretary of L’Academie francaise, the French Academy. He is splendidly attired in his 68,000-dollar uniform, befitting the role of the French Academy as legislating the correct usage in French and perpetuating the language. The French Academy has two main tasks: it compiles a dictionary of official French. They’re now working on their ninth edition, which they began in 1930, and they’ve reached the letter P. They also legislate on correct usage, such as the proper term for what the French call “email,” which ought to be “courriel.” The World Wide Web, the French are told, ought to be referred to as “la toile d’araignee mondiale” — the Global Spider Web — recommendations that the French gaily ignore. Now, this is one model of how language comes to be: namely, it’s legislated by an academy. But anyone who looks at language realizes that this is a rather silly conceit, that language, rather, emerges from human minds interacting from one another. And this is visible in the unstoppable change in language — the fact that by the time the Academy finishes their dictionary, it will already be well out of date. We see it in the constant appearance of slang and jargon, of the historical change in languages, in divergence of dialects and the formation of new languages. So language is not so much a creator or shaper of human nature, so much as a window onto human nature. In a book that I’m currently working on, I hope to use language to shed light on a number of aspects of human nature, including the cognitive machinery with which humans conceptualize the world and the relationship types that govern human interaction. And I’m going to say a few words about each one this morning. Let me start off with a technical problem in language that I’ve worried about for quite some time — and indulge me in my passion for verbs and how they’re used. The problem is, which verbs go in which constructions? The verb is the chassis of the sentence. It’s the framework onto which the other parts are bolted. Let me give you a quick reminder of something that you’ve long forgotten. An intransitive verb, such as “dine,” for example, can’t take a direct object. You have to say, “Sam dined,” not, “Sam dined the pizza.” A transitive verb mandates that there has to be an object there: “Sam devoured the pizza.” You can’t just say, “Sam devoured.” There are dozens or scores of verbs of this type, each of which shapes its sentence. So, a problem in explaining how children learn language, a problem in teaching language to adults so that they don’t make grammatical errors, and a problem in programming computers to use language is which verbs go in which constructions. For example, the dative construction in English. You can say, “Give a muffin to a mouse,” the prepositional dative. Or, “Give a mouse a muffin,” the double-object dative. “Promise anything to her,” “Promise her anything,” and so on. Hundreds of verbs can go both ways. So a tempting generalization for a child, for an adult, for a computer is that any verb that can appear in the construction, “subject-verb-thing-to-a-recipient” can also be expressed as “subject-verb-recipient-thing.” A handy thing to have, because language is infinite, and you can’t just parrot back the sentences that you’ve heard. You’ve got to extract generalizations so you can produce and understand new sentences. This would be an example of how to do that. Unfortunately, there appear to be idiosyncratic exceptions. You can say, “Biff drove the car to Chicago,” but not, “Biff drove Chicago the car.” You can say, “Sal gave Jason a headache,” but it’s a bit odd to say, “Sal gave a headache to Jason.” The solution is that these constructions, despite initial appearance, are not synonymous, that when you crank up the microscope on human cognition, you see that there’s a subtle difference in meaning between them. So, “give the X to the Y,” that construction corresponds to the thought “cause X to go to Y.” Whereas “give the Y the X” corresponds to the thought “cause Y to have X.” Now, many events can be subject to either construal, kind of like the classic figure-ground reversal illusions, in which you can either pay attention to the particular object, in which case the space around it recedes from attention, or you can see the faces in the empty space, in which case the object recedes out of consciousness. How are these construals reflected in language? Well, in both cases, the thing that is construed as being affected is expressed as the direct object, the noun after the verb. So, when you think of the event as causing the muffin to go somewhere — where you’re doing something to the muffin — you say, “Give the muffin to the mouse.” When you construe it as “cause the mouse to have something,” you’re doing something to the mouse, and therefore you express it as, “Give the mouse the muffin.” So which verbs go in which construction — the problem with which I began — depends on whether the verb specifies a kind of motion or a kind of possession change. To give something involves both causing something to go and causing someone to have. To drive the car only causes something to go, because Chicago’s not the kind of thing that can possess something. Only humans can possess things. And to give someone a headache causes them to have the headache, but it’s not as if you’re taking the headache out of your head and causing it to go to the other person, and implanting it in them. You may just be loud or obnoxious, or some other way causing them to have the headache. So, that’s an example of the kind of thing that I do in my day job. So why should anyone care? Well, there are a number of interesting conclusions, I think, from this and many similar kinds of analyses of hundreds of English verbs. First, there’s a level of fine-grained conceptual structure, which we automatically and unconsciously compute every time we produce or utter a sentence, that governs our use of language. You can think of this as the language of thought, or “mentalese.” It seems to be based on a fixed set of concepts, which govern dozens of constructions and thousands of verbs — not only in English, but in all other languages — fundamental concepts such as space, time, causation and human intention, such as, what is the means and what is the ends? These are reminiscent of the kinds of categories that Immanuel Kant argued are the basic framework for human thought, and it’s interesting that our unconscious use of language seems to reflect these Kantian categories. Doesn’t care about perceptual qualities, such as color, texture, weight and speed, which virtually never differentiate the use of verbs in different constructions. An additional twist is that all of the constructions in English are used not only literally, but in a quasi-metaphorical way. For example, this construction, the dative, is used not only to transfer things, but also for the metaphorical transfer of ideas, as when we say, “She told a story to me” or “told me a story,” “Max taught Spanish to the students” or “taught the students Spanish.” It’s exactly the same construction, but no muffins, no mice, nothing moving at all. It evokes the container metaphor of communication, in which we conceive of ideas as objects, sentences as containers, and communication as a kind of sending. As when we say we “gather” our ideas, to “put” them “into” words, and if our words aren’t “empty” or “hollow,” we might get these ideas “across” to a listener, who can “unpack” our words to “extract” their “content.” And indeed, this kind of verbiage is not the exception, but the rule. It’s very hard to find any example of abstract language that is not based on some concrete metaphor. For example, you can use the verb “go” and the prepositions “to” and “from” in a literal, spatial sense. “The messenger went from Paris to Istanbul.” You can also say, “Biff went from sick to well.” He needn’t go anywhere. He could have been in bed the whole time, but it’s as if his health is a point in state space that you conceptualize as moving. Or, “The meeting went from three to four,” in which we conceive of time as stretched along a line. Likewise, we use “force” to indicate not only physical force, as in, “Rose forced the door to open,” but also interpersonal force, as in, “Rose forced Sadie to go,” not necessarily by manhandling her, but by issuing a threat. Or, “Rose forced herself to go,” as if there were two entities inside Rose’s head, engaged in a tug of a war. Second conclusion is that the ability to conceive of a given event in two different ways, such as “cause something to go to someone” and “causing someone to have something,” I think is a fundamental feature of human thought, and it’s the basis for much human argumentation, in which people don’t differ so much on the facts as on how they ought to be construed. Just to give you a few examples: “ending a pregnancy” versus “killing a fetus;” “a ball of cells” versus “an unborn child;” “invading Iraq” versus “liberating Iraq;” “redistributing wealth” versus “confiscating earnings.” And I think the biggest picture of all would take seriously the fact that so much of our verbiage about abstract events is based on a concrete metaphor and see human intelligence itself as consisting of a repertoire of concepts — such as objects, space, time, causation and intention — which are useful in a social, knowledge-intensive species, whose evolution you can well imagine, and a process of metaphorical abstraction that allows us to bleach these concepts of their original conceptual content — space, time and force — and apply them to new abstract domains, therefore allowing a species that evolved to deal with rocks and tools and animals, to conceptualize mathematics, physics, law and other abstract domains. Well, I said I’d talk about two windows on human nature — the cognitive machinery with which we conceptualize the world, and now I’m going to say a few words about the relationship types that govern human social interaction, again, as reflected in language. And I’ll start out with a puzzle, the puzzle of indirect speech acts. Now, I’m sure most of you have seen the movie “Fargo.” And you might remember the scene in which the kidnapper is pulled over by a police officer, is asked to show his driver’s license and holds his wallet out with a 50-dollar bill extending at a slight angle out of the wallet. And he says, “I was just thinking that maybe we could take care of it here in Fargo,” which everyone, including the audience, interprets as a veiled bribe. This kind of indirect speech is rampant in language. For example, in polite requests, if someone says, “If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome,” we know exactly what he means, even though that’s a rather bizarre concept being expressed. (Laughter) “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” I think most people understand the intent behind that. And likewise, if someone says, “Nice store you’ve got there. It would be a real shame if something happened to it” — (Laughter) — we understand that as a veiled threat, rather than a musing of hypothetical possibilities. So the puzzle is, why are bribes, polite requests, solicitations and threats so often veiled? No one’s fooled. Both parties know exactly what the speaker means, and the speaker knows the listener knows that the speaker knows that the listener knows, etc., etc. So what’s going on? I think the key idea is that language is a way of negotiating relationships, and human relationships fall into a number of types. There’s an influential taxonomy by the anthropologist Alan Fiske, in which relationships can be categorized, more or less, into communality, which works on the principle “what’s mine is thine, what’s thine is mine,” the kind of mindset that operates within a family, for example; dominance, whose principle is “don’t mess with me;” reciprocity, “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours;” and sexuality, in the immortal words of Cole Porter, “Let’s do it.” Now, relationship types can be negotiated. Even though there are default situations in which one of these mindsets can be applied, they can be stretched and extended. For example, communality applies most naturally within family or friends, but it can be used to try to transfer the mentality of sharing to groups that ordinarily would not be disposed to exercise it. For example, in brotherhoods, fraternal organizations, sororities, locutions like “the family of man,” you try to get people who are not related to use the relationship type that would ordinarily be appropriate to close kin. Now, mismatches — when one person assumes one relationship type, and another assumes a different one — can be awkward. If you went over and you helped yourself to a shrimp off your boss’ plate, for example, that would be an awkward situation. Or if a dinner guest after the meal pulled out his wallet and offered to pay you for the meal, that would be rather awkward as well. In less blatant cases, there’s still a kind of negotiation that often goes on. In the workplace, for example, there’s often a tension over whether an employee can socialize with the boss, or refer to him or her on a first-name basis. If two friends have a reciprocal transaction, like selling a car, it’s well known that this can be a source of tension or awkwardness. In dating, the transition from friendship to sex can lead to, notoriously, various forms of awkwardness, and as can sex in the workplace, in which we call the conflict between a dominant and a sexual relationship “sexual harassment.” Well, what does this have to do with language? Well, language, as a social interaction, has to satisfy two conditions. You have to convey the actual content — here we get back to the container metaphor. You want to express the bribe, the command, the promise, the solicitation and so on, but you also have to negotiate and maintain the kind of relationship you have with the other person. The solution, I think, is that we use language at two levels: the literal form signals the safest relationship with the listener, whereas the implicated content — the reading between the lines that we count on the listener to perform — allows the listener to derive the interpretation which is most relevant in context, which possibly initiates a changed relationship. The simplest example of this is in the polite request. If you express your request as a conditional — “if you could open the window, that would be great” — even though the content is an imperative, the fact that you’re not using the imperative voice means that you’re not acting as if you’re in a relationship of dominance, where you could presuppose the compliance of the other person. On the other hand, you want the damn guacamole. By expressing it as an if-then statement, you can get the message across without appearing to boss another person around. And in a more subtle way, I think, this works for all of the veiled speech acts involving plausible deniability: the bribes, threats, propositions, solicitations and so on. One way of thinking about it is to imagine what it would be like if language — where it could only be used literally. And you can think of it in terms of a game-theoretic payoff matrix. Put yourself in the position of the kidnapper wanting to bribe the officer. There’s a high stakes in the two possibilities of having a dishonest officer or an honest officer. If you don’t bribe the officer, then you will get a traffic ticket — or, as is the case of “Fargo,” worse — whether the honest officer is honest or dishonest. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. In that case, the consequences are rather severe. On the other hand, if you extend the bribe, if the officer is dishonest, you get a huge payoff of going free. If the officer is honest, you get a huge penalty of being arrested for bribery. So this is a rather fraught situation. On the other hand, with indirect language, if you issue a veiled bribe, then the dishonest officer could interpret it as a bribe, in which case you get the payoff of going free. The honest officer can’t hold you to it as being a bribe, and therefore, you get the nuisance of the traffic ticket. So you get the best of both worlds. And a similar analysis, I think, can apply to the potential awkwardness of a sexual solicitation, and other cases where plausible deniability is an asset. I think this affirms something that’s long been known by diplomats — namely, that the vagueness of language, far from being a bug or an imperfection, actually might be a feature of language, one that we use to our advantage in social interactions. So to sum up: language is a collective human creation, reflecting human nature, how we conceptualize reality, how we relate to one another. And then by analyzing the various quirks and complexities of language, I think we can get a window onto what makes us tick. Thank you very much. (Applause)

100 Replies to “Steven Pinker: What our language habits reveal”

  • who said anything is wrong, thats subjective, I was giving an analogy of what the novel 1984 calls newspeak to todays twitter…

  • Of course character counts, but its not only that, the usage of the # sign … perhaps technospeak would be more appropriate, it might not reduce *your* capacity to express real thought, but for most it is, much like text-speak… are you really implying it produces true expression? It reduces , for most, attention spans

  • I'm taking a recording of this guy's voice to my next dentist appointment. 4 minutes in, BOOM ! I'm asleep…

  • Its a shame that he speaks just like he writes.
    Its so hard to get through most of his books as interesting as they are.

    There are plenty of "smart people" who don't sound so boring. I think it has to do with Steven's mannerisms and tone of his voice.

  • But i was replying to the comment that one language implies that we're on the right path, and I showed a counter example of that.

  • The best advocates or teachers of any subject enable if not inspire others to want to know or learn more about a topic, not put them off.

  • Please explain why being 'put off' smacks of anti-intellectualism. Are you saying that Pinker needs to dumb down the conversation? Your post clearly indicates Pinker's talk didn't blow your dress up – which begs the question; since it did not meet your criteria for entertainment, what is your role in this, aside from lobbing stale popcorn from the cheap seats? Do you have a video we can sample of your teaching style?

  • I did not use "put off" to mean that the speaker should dumb down his speech for viewers, so I did not say that the speaker's speech should be anti-intellectual. As a layman viewer who stumbled onto this site, I was simply not stimulated to continue watching the video. Why should I have to explain anti-intellectualism to you?
    I simply expressed that I was not excited by the lecture in the video and smart people in general. I did not know who Pinker was, so I don't have any hidden agenda.

  • No, you need not explain anything to me, or anyone else for that matter, particularly since you are admittedly a layman who isn't "excited by smart people." I never imagined you had any sort of hidden agenda.. I merely asked what your role might be as an end user. It was a rhetorical question. I am amused at your need to be entertained, and how that need qualifies you to dismiss this video based on your value judgments. Never mind how you feel about 'smart people in general.'

  • Plus I did not say that I was not "excited by smart people" as u put it.

    Please do not make assumptions or misquote.

  • I have reviewed your remark, and I did make a leap. So, here is is the corrected response which really hearkens back to my original argument;

    You are admittedly a layman who isn't "excited by the lecture." It thus follows that you are not, 'excited' by smart people.

    As such, I stand behind my remark, and rest my argument on your thoughtless, crappy dismissal of a brilliant lecturer simply because he didn't reach you on a visceral level. In short, Pinker is not Joey, or Chandler, or Ross.

  • It was not because that the speaker did not meet my "criteria for entertainment" as u put it that I was not compelled to continue listening. There r ways to engage listeners or inspire interest and there r ways not to.
    The fact is not everyone was interested by the lecture. And not everyone has to be.
    If u r so insecure that u want everyone to agree with u or want to ingratiate yourself with a renowned academic, go ahead but leave me out of it.

  • "u sub-standard human being and pseudo-intellectual…"

    Really? seriously?

    muhaaaaaaaahhhhh – what a genius.

  • sniffle… you are correct. I started it.

    And who flagged the remark as spam?

    et tu Brutus?

    Insecure? heh heh heh

    Substandard? You're killing me smalls

    That must be it. You nailed it Mr. Youtube Guru.

    What episode of Friends clued you in?

  • I didn't get to see ur vulgar remarks so I didn't get to flag them.
    Like many people on the planet, I had enjoyed watching Friends. Are u too high-brow to, nerd?

  • You make it sound like a bad thing. No, I watched the zany anesthetized existence of a bunch of self-consumed twenty-somethings, but it seemed like such a waste to sit on the sidelines watching an idiot box and living vicariously. It never made much sense to waste my time living vicariously when there is so much in the world to take learn. For me, reality is far more entertaining than fiction. Despite your contention, learning and mastery are not the enemy. Come to the dark side. Think!

  • Again, the fact remains that not everyone was enamoured with the presentation style of ur idol. The point is one can probably learn more from the speaker's writings than this video lecture. Surprise!
    U can continue your politically correct or blinkered devotion to another human being. But can u leave other people alone to watch the "idiot box"? Also, don't make assumptions about my preferences or purpose, simply by what I bookmark or allow to appear on my Channel.

  • Just as based on your limited Channel, I didn't assume u were some boring kook who was in the habit of "living vicariously" by watching only TED videos for mental nourishment. Although now I think I should have.

  • You see, to me at least and other scientist, it's the exact opposite.. To explain or understand something intuitively is to, presumedly, have scientific knowledge of it: in your case, language and "sex act". Scientific knowledge only adds to beauty and passion, I don't see how it subtracts. The more intimately we know something, the more we can appreciate it.

  • 2007 had significantly lower video quality in general. Youtube is only around since 2005. Two years into the platform, it didn't have that amazing qualities.
    Some of the TED conferences from back then qualitatively also were much worse than the rather consistently high standards they have by now. TED Talks of this form only exist since spring '06. A LOT changed since then.

  • Trying to watch this at 3:13 in the morning was a bad idea. All I've gathered from this was "give a mouse a muffin" hahahah tomorrow perhaps…

  • Thought this was going to be one of those chat shows that relies on trivia and curious knownledge. Not dissapointed though! I'm a Modern Languages students and I teach English to Spanish native speakers, most of them adults. This was incredibly helpful!

  • If you disagree with the idea that "language is not so much a creator of human nature, but is more a window onto human nature" is your position that language IS a creator of human nature, and/or that it DOESN'T reveal anything about human nature?

    If that's the case your example isn't really working for you (more like against you).

    And your argumentum ad populum fallacy ("…but it is well known that …") isn't doing you any favours either.

    Pinker is indeed a smart man.

  • Life sucks. My friend has begun dating a 10 mainly because 60 days ago he registered to a website called Master Attraction (Google it if you'd like to learn how.) I'm jealous since I want to fall in love too. How come it's so difficult? I'm gonna look at this Jake Ayres guy's material to determine if it can help a person like me. Odd thing is, he once had no success with females. How do you transform so swiftly? His lady's like a model…

  • There is a simpler rule at 6:00 for English use of transitives with/without a preposition (w/w/out "to"). Giving or doing a thing physicallyrequires a preposition. So, you drive a car to Chicago. Giving or doing a thing indirectly/metaphorically/non-physically can have or not have a preposition. So, you give her a hard time but you give it to herhard, or you give her a headache, and she really hands it to you, but she hands you your head, not "to you," hoping to mean figurative, not murder.

  • with ted talks the really pointless ones have lots of upvotes while ones with actual information like this pale in comparison.

  • It is difficult to predict the far future, of course, but at the present stage, from a philological perspective, we are still living in a age of great ignorance about language, and thus nations are still protecting their own national languages, instead of creating a global one. English is the international language, but it is not yet a global one. In order for English to become the future global language it would have to adopt tens of thousands of non-European words, categories, and concepts on top of it. The greatest obstacle to a 'Global Language' is translation. We did it for two thousand years, it's old-fashioned and out-of-date, to say the least. Translation is pure cultural imperialism. The question is, is it really necessary – letting alone scientific, moral, or even legal – anymore to translate foreign key terminologies into Western words just to claim the West's sovereignty over the definition of thought? The true Global Language encourages writers from all corners of the world to limit their translations of cultural key terminologies in order to contribute to the formation of a global language that best reflects the cultural diversity and multitude of human thought, originality, and inventiveness. Knowledge is a Polyglot. Best! Thorsten
    http://bigthink.com/big-think-tv/knowledge-is-a-polyglot-the-future-of-global-language

  • I remain unconvinced by the initial conceit of this talk. The Academie clearly has not been successful in imposing its will over all speakers of French, in all circumstances; it has, however, prevented a an unstoppable erosion.

    Most French speakers will refer to the time between end-of-business on Friday, and the return to work on Monday, as "le weekend" (as opposed to "la fin de semaine".)
    I have found that "courriel" is widely used, instead of "email"… or more simply a "mel", for euphonic comfort.

    In the IT sphere, the Academie has scored a winner with "'logiciel"  Put that in your pipe.

    It's not difficult to understand a permissive POV which advocate that the culture of any People should evolve according to whichever way the wind blows. Conversely, one can also argue in favor of social, collective, self-defense. Alienation of our connections to our past …because we become estranged to the replaced vocabulary of our forebears: that is NOT acceptable.

    Sir, your culture acquired the use of "laissez-faire". "Let [them] do." Goody goody. But please bear in mind that societies other than you own,
    which has adopted a rather extreme position /among western societies  along in these matters, are not Masada-like resistant to guidance from their Government of the People, by the Peeps… you're getting it, I hope.

  • 68 thousand dollars for clothes? doesn't he know there are hungry people in the world? He should watch I Am (the man wearing the out fit)

  • Steve Pinker is one of the most fascinating thinkers of our time.  He is getting to the root of knowledge via the subtle clues in our language usage.  His examples are extremely perceptive. He is helping us all see through the veneer of "words", deeper into "meaning" — very stimulating!

  • Why does the beginning and ending of sessions with TED logo –  Blare with such Annoying Sound.  Whosoever does the sound recording is damn stupid.

  • the gray areas of language stress me out. i love the way he breaks it down systematically. kinda gives me more appreciation for those gray areas. 

  • It was hard to enjoy because of the dreadful feedback from the microphone. How can it be that the organisers could not sort that out?

  • song is supposed to be the Triumphal March from the opera Aida by Verdi. Cool intro song to me. Pinker is a genius though he missed on Brainerd yes.

  • Running rings around a captive or paying audience, is running rings around them. regardless of whether you are doing it with language or tricycles. Such instances should not reflect badly on the ethnicity, nationality or cultures involved though, as surely fast talkers and obfuscators are found in all circumstances.

  • My boyfriend, Stephen, once told me that if I don't omnipotent on the 24 cats in our garage that my heart would turn black. Reviewing if his claim was woordenboek in the city of Bloomington, I found that I wanted to stay classy regardless of the law. So today, March 13th 2017, I have decided to focus on these 24 cats and become a legend

  • ...Would you like to come up and see my etchings?

  • And the rain was on the earth 40 days and 40 nights.
    So it came to pass @ the end of the 40th day, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made.
    Then the ark rested in the 7th month- the 17th day of the month, on the mountains of Ararat.

  • I may be wrong but some of this sounds more about the nature of the english language, rather than about language in general. I'm not sure either that some of the observations there are ground breaking. I mean, the opposition between "to be", "to do" and "to have"… Since these are the most basic verbal constructs, one expects these to represent  building-block concepts of reason, but Pinker doesn't connect these to kantian a priori. I generally like Pinker but not everything he says is hugely insightful: Here I heard a lot of descriptive exposition (a catalogue of categorised speech examples, all of which is commonly known) and very little synthesis (uncovering generative or unifying mechanisms, bringing insight into the nature of cognition).

  • 4:50 That vase shows our very own Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (or Brenda and Phil the Greek as we call them.)
    Also, I think Steven just gave his headache to me.

  • Steven Pinker always sounds like he's just ran down the block and then had a microphone suddenly thrust in his face.

  • How delightful it would be to tie up in a chair the person who decided to insert the sound effects at the beginning of each TED video. I could then take my time in dreaming up punishments that fit the crime. It is in fact delightful just to think about it….

  • Why does Pinker look like a girl? I wouldn't trust him any further than
    I could throw him and I'm not that strong. I think there should be a law against appearing in public as a hermaphrodite when your actually a man. He belongs in jail. Is he schtupping young college girls? I wouldn't be surprised. That curly hairdo must be time consuming. And itchy. Or MAYBE IT'S A WIG. That's what it is. A grey woman's wig. Being worn by an alleged man. "Give that man the muffin".

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