Jafar's Reviews > The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker
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Aug 03, 2008

it was amazing

It’s hard to review this book. The book starts off to look too heavy with a long chapter on verbs. If you think verbs are simple things that are classified into transitive and intransitive, you’re in for a big surprise. The chapter is named Down the Rabbit Hole after how Alice ended up in Wonderland. And the world of verbs is quite a Wonderland. This chapter can seem a bit too technical and tedious unless you really love language. There’s a chapter about the relationship between language and intelligence. Is intelligence possible, or even meaningful, without language, or is it a slave to language? Fascinating theories there. Another chapter is on how causality, time, and space are represented in language, and how this representation affects our understanding of these notions. More fascinating stuff. There are more chapters on metaphors, names, profanity, and indirect language. All intensely fascinating stuff. Steven Pinker is a genius, yessir!

Pinker wants to show what language – words, their meanings, constructions, and how they’re used – can teach us about human nature. Except for the discussion on Nativism vs. Pragmatism (whether mental representation of word meanings are innate or not) he stays clear of the nature vs. nurture debate. In the course of the book, we do encounter a lot of insight into human nature based on language. It may seem obvious if put abstractly, but language, being the most prominent thing that separates us from other animals, do say a lot about what we are.

I think the chapter on swearing by itself should qualify this book for some grand prize.
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Jenne Did you read his book Words and Rules? It's almost entirely about verbs. It's awesome.

Jafar I haven’t read Words and Rules, but I think I should. Pinker calls verbs his little friends – and he knows a few things about his little friends. Consider this example. You can say, Jared sprayed water on the roses, or you can say, Jared sprayed the roses with water. However, while you can say, Serena coiled a rope around the pole, you cannot say, Serena coiled the pole with a rope. What is it about the latter sentence that makes it sound odd in spite of it being intelligible? There are countless examples of such subtle intricacies with verbs. How do children learn them? It can’t be by rote. If there’s some kind of a grammar behind them, what are the rules of this grammar? It’s not the sort of grammar that your English teacher talks about. And what can this grammar say about cognition and human mind? He discusses different types of verbs that he labels as content-locative, container-locative, double-objective dative, prepositional dative, causative, etc. Really neat stuff.

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