Thursday 23 October 2008

Steven Pinker: The Stuff of Thought:: Language as a Window into Human Nature

Having just read this book I can’t help but feel that the Hobbit Haired Professor is brainier than an extra large slice of brain pie with lashing of Tesco’s finest extra creamy brain sauce. Pinker eloquently demonstrates how the evolution of a language and its syntax are derived from our instinctive human nature. Pinker shows how we have subconsciously created categories for verbs based on various attributes that unbeknownst to us have determined how we construct the syntax of our language. This allow us to instinctively define rules for when we can use certain verbs in certain contexts and when their usage will just not sound right. In subsequent chapters he goes on to explore why we have fashions in names for our children and what determines the rise and fall of those fashions. My favourite chapter however has to be where Pinker delves into our most seedy swear words to uncover how and why each language defines a certain set of taboo words, how the perceived potency of those words can vary over time and how and why we incorporate them into our vocabulary. Throughout the book Pinker peppers his writing with cartoons, quotations and examples, many of which were familiar to me from watching far too much Monty Python. If watching banal TV soaps and talent shows rots your brain (As I suspect it does), this book is the perfect antidote.

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