Sampling The Stuff of Thought

3 Quarks Daily has an extended review of Steven Pinker’s new book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature that highlights one of the many curiosities of the English language.

…what I’d like to try to do here is give you a flavor of the kinds of things the book is about by briefly explaining one of the many fascinating stories that Pinker tells about language and what it entails for “conceptual semantics”–the concepts and schemes that we use to think–indeed, the language of thought itself….

So now, if you heard someone say brush paint onto the fence you might guess that brush the fence with paint is also fine. So far so good. But now consider a different sentence: Hal poured water into the glass. It cannot be transformed in a similar manner: Hal poured the glass with water sounds immediately wrong to a normal speaker of English. Similarly, problems arise in the other direction with other verbs like fill: while the container-locative construction Bobby filled the glass with water is fine, the content-locative Bobby filled water into the glass is not grammatical English. Why?

As Pinker puts it, “How do children succeed in acquiring an infinite language when the rules they are tempted to postulate just get them into trouble by generating constructions that other speakers choke on? How do they figure out that certain verbs can’t appear in perfectly good constructions?”

The review goes through Pinker’s explanations for how we acquire the correct use of these aspects of language.

This example is one among many that raises the question of how children learn irregular parts of the language.

You might think that they just pick it up from hearing examples or from being corrected by parents, but it turns out that the examples too rarely occur for a complete demonstration of all these aspects and parents actually rarely correct every such mistake children make.

This situations are often where Pinker would argue for an innate ‘language instinct’ which can generate working language rules from limited experience.

You’ll have to read the review or the book for a complete explanation of how this particular rule works out, but it seems, at least according to Pinker, that it’s not just a matter of grammar – certain verbs imply certain physical possibilities and these meanings influence what seems grammatical.

And if you want to catch the author in person, Pinker is on tour at the moment, talking about his new book.

Link to review of The Stuff of Thought.
Link to Stuff of Thought lecture tour dates.

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