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The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

This article was inspired by Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought . If you enjoy this article then consider purchasing or borrowing the book.

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How the Human Equation Affects Language

“Semantics is about the relation of words to thoughts, but it is also about the relation of words to other human concerns.”

Inconveniently, there aren’t inherent links between the words we use every day and the people, places, things and ideas they represent. History has a profound influence on the words we choose to use. For example, consider the trends of baby names around the world.

There are three groups, which theories on the language usage fall into:

  1. “Extreme nativism” – This school of thought suggests that the brain has the mechanisms to use language at birth, and experience merely develops the skills already possessed by us all. This philosophy does not explain changes in evolution over time or how we even use language.
  2. “Radical pragmatics” – Unlike nativists, pragmatists believe that “nothing in language is fixed.” Social conventions change word usage over time. Though this theory explains word usage, it fails to account for syntactical practices and specific trends throughout history.
  3. “Linguistic determinism” – Determinism suggests that the specific concepts you investigate are influenced by your language. However, people have explored concepts throughout time, which didn’t previously have a name (the Internet for example).

From birth, people use social context to master their language. Children don’t need to be formally taught rules of language to speak it, as they analyze the success and failure of words, phrases, and sentences in conversations.

Do our assumptions of space and time and the interaction of objects within them stem from reality or a human mind’s forced order on a complicated world. Space and time aren’t necessarily absolutes, but they aren’t purely man made either. Animals demonstrate a primitive understanding of these concepts.

Spatial relation must be expressed by language, so we use words such as “in” or “on,” “east” or “west, and “here” or “there” to accomplish this. In a world of motion, people utilize verb tenses and their ability to express the temporal nature of our actions. In order to express new experiences and convey meaning, humans use metaphors, which rely on the familiar. Without the metaphor, communicating complex ideas and discoveries would be practically impossible, and it wouldn’t be quite as potent.

There are three reasons for changes in word meaning:

  1. “Social pressure”
  2. “The disappearance of the referent”
  3. “The transformation of the referent”

As individuals coin new terms, language continually changes. Rather than creating a whole new word, people will generally combine parts of preexisting words or use prefixes, suffixes and abbreviations to create “new” words. In the age of globalization, the adoption of foreign words into one’s language is more common than ever before.

There is a dark side to language, as well. Over time, people have determined that some words are “obscenities.” Taboo topics and words limit our ability to communicate and often force us to use indirect language to convey information – just consider the art of the pickup line.


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