A labyrinth of linguistics for the layperson to savor. Don’t let the pace and density of Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language by Steven Pinker make you dizzy, just sit back, read and enjoy the ride.
Steven Pinker has targeted two areas for study, visual cognition and language. With his best-selling The Language Instinct, he joined Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins in writing elegant scientific tomes for the popular audience. In the book, Pinker writes about a vibrant and evolving language which can’t stagnate even though some language mavens would make it so.
He also explained Noam Chomsky’s ideas about the evolutionary development of language. Beginning with Chomsky’s belief that language is an inherited ability, Pinker expanded the ideas and used evolutionary psychology and the idea that the brain’s function is for computation for his second best-seller, How The Mind Works. He unleashed a mountain of controversy with Stephen Jay Gould, Thomas Wolfe, as well as those of the religious and arts community, weighing in with their counter-viewpoints. Many argued his premise that the mind can be studied apart from the surrounding culture.
His latest book, Words and Rules:The Ingredients of Language, is perhaps less controversial, but still thought-provoking.
He heard children say things such as “I heared a bell” or “she holded the doll” and realized that no one really knew why children made those errors.
Pinker ably weaves Woody Allen movies, irregular and regular verbs, Wittgenstein, “Far Side” cartoons, word play, and linguistic gymnastics together to explain that language is a combination of memory and generative rules. The study of irregular and regular verbs can lead us to greater understanding of the human mind, our world and our language.
English has only 180 irregular verbs, all of which must be memorized. Before the memory is permanently imprinted with these strange verbs, children fall back on “holded” and “heared”.
In a 1999 Time magazine article, Pinker wrote: “Irregular and regular verbs embody the two underlying tricks behind the gift of articulate speech: words and rules. A word is a memorized link between a sound and a meaning. The word duck does not look, walk, or quack like a duck. But we can use it to convey the idea of a duck because we all once learned to connect the sound with the idea.
“We also combine words into bigger words and sentences, using the second trick of language, rules. Journalists say that when a dog bites a man, that isn’t news, but when a man bites a dog, that is news. Rules, they let us convey news, by reshuffling words in systematic ways.