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Beneath the Language
on 27 August 2011
Stephen Pinker continues his career-long mission to teach the reading public about language. His focus is neither the mechanics of grammar nor the neurological structures that make language possible. Instead he describes mental processes that immediately support language such as metaphor, features that distinguish related sets of words, and the sketchily incomplete mental models we build as we interpret each other's words.
To convince us that small distinctions in language can make a real-world difference, Pinker opens with an insurance claim from the September 11, 2001 destruction of the two World Trade Center towers. The insurer had an upper limit on what they would pay for any single "event" that damaged the buildings. Was the damage caused by the single event of a terrorist attack, as claimed by the insurer? Or was it caused by the separate events of two airplane crashes, as counter-claimed by the buildings' owners? There was no clear answer in the careful legal language of the insurance contract.
There are two ways to read Pinker's book. The first is to read the whole thing, from introduction to closing paragraph. He describes the mental models we build while understanding and reasoning with language. Metaphor helps us use our concrete experience, such as the up/down distinction created by gravity, to inform more abstract dimensions such as better/worse. Pinker also explores the social dimensions that allow us to negotiate relationships while seeming to simply convey information. Having outlined the basics, Pinker turns to more entertaining aspects of language to sharpen our understanding. There is a far-ranging discussion of profanity which describes the "correct" way to swear and explains why some words are taboo. The discussion of the social dimension of naming ranges from generational fads to why some newly coined terms catch on and become part of the language. The long path through the book is satisfying and enjoyable.
The second approach is for the time-constrained or selective reader. In the final chapter, the author provides "...a word's-eye view of human nature, one that emerges from the phenomena of the [preceding] chapters..." This overview outlines the aspects of sensation, cognition, and social relations that shape and are shaped by language. One can read this section of the chapter in a few minutes and note which aspects are unexpected or intriguing. This subset is a guide to the most beneficial sections of the book. Not the full treatment, but still a good read.
This book is recommended for those readers looking for a better understanding of the relationship between language and thought.