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Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Languageby Steven Pinker
Synopses & Reviews
The Infinite Library
Language comes so naturally to us that it is easy to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is. All over the world members of our species fashion their breath into hisses and hums and squeaks and pops and listen to others do the same. We do this, of course, not only because we like the sounds but because details of the sounds contain information about the intentions of the person making them. We humans are fitted with a means of sharing our ideas, in all their unfathomable vastness. When we listen to speech, we can be led to think thoughts that have never been thought before and that never would have occurred to us on our own. Behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King without the help and support of the woman I love.
Language has fascinated people for thousands of years, and linguists have studied every detail, from the number of languages spoken in New Guinea to why we say razzle-dazzle instead of dazzle-razzle. Yet to me the first and deepest challenge in understanding language is accounting for its boundless expressive power. What is the trick behind our ability to fill one another's heads with so many different ideas?The premise of this book is that there are two tricks, words and rules. They work by different principles, are learned and used in different ways, and may evenreside in different parts of the brain. Their border disputes shape and reshape languages over centuries, and make language not only a tool for communication but also a medium for wordplay and poetry and an heirloom of endless fascination.
The first trick, the word, is based on a memorized arbitrary pairing between a sound and a meaning. "What's in a name?" asks Juliet. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." What's in a name is that everyone in a language community tacitly agrees to use a particular sound to convey a particular idea. Although the word rose does not smell sweet or have thorns, we can use it to convey the idea of a rose because all of us have learned, at our mother's knee or in the playground, the same link between a noise and a thought. Now any of us can convey the thought by making the noise.
The theory that words work by a conventional pairing of sound and meaning is not banal or uncontroversial. In the earliest surviving debate on linguistics, Plato has Hermogenes say, "Nothing has its name by nature, but only by usage and custom." Cratylus disagrees: "There is a correctness of name existing by nature for everything: a name is not simply that which a number of people jointly agree to call a thing." Cratylus is a creationist, and suggests that "a power greater than man assigned the first names to things." Today, those who see a correctness of names might attribute it instead to onomatopoeia (words such as crash and oink that sound like what they mean) or to sound symbolism (words such as sneer, cantankerous, and mellifluous that naturally call to mind the things they mean).
Today this debate has been resolved in favor of Hermogenes'conventional pairing. Early in this century Ferdinand de Saussure, a founder of modern linguistics, called such pairing the arbitrary sign and made it a cornerstone of the study of language. I Onomatopoeia and sound symbolism certainly exist, but they are asterisks to the far more important principle of the arbitrary sign--or else we would understand the words in every foreign language instinctively, and never need a dictionary for our own! Even the most obviously onomatopoeic words--those for animal sounds--are notoriously unpredictable, with pigs oinking booboo in Japan and dogs barking gong-gong in Indonesia. Sound symbolism, for its part, was no friend of the American woman in the throes of labor who overheard what struck her as the most beautiful word in the English language and named her newborn daughter Meconium, the medical term for fetal excrement.
Though simple, the principle of the arbitrary sign is a powerful tool for getting thoughts from head to head. Children begin to learn words before their first birthday, and by their second they hoover them up at a rate of one every two hours. By the time they enter school children command 13,000 words, and then the pace picks up, because new words rain down on them from both speech and print. A typical high-school graduate knows about 60,000 words; a literate adult, perhaps twice that number. People recognize words swiftly. The meaning of a spoken word is accessed by a listener I brain in about a fifth of a second, before the speaker has finished pronouncing it. The meaning of a printed word is registered even more quickly, in about an eighth of a second. People produce words almost as rapidly: It takes the brain about a quarter ofa second to find a word to name an object, and about another quarter of a second to program the mouth and tongue to pronounce it.
The arbitrary sign works because a speaker and a listener can call on identical entries in their mental dictionaries. The speaker has a thought, makes a sound, and counts on the listener to hear the sound and recover that thought. To depict an entry in the mental dictionary we need a way of showing the entry itself, as well as its sound and meaning. The entry for a word is simply its address in one's memory, like the location of the boldfaced entry for a word in a real dictionary...
How does language work, and how do we learn to speak? Why do languages change over time, and why do they have so many quirks and irregularities? In this original and totally entertaining book written in the same engaging style that illuminated his bestselling classics, The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, Seven Pinker explores the profound mysteries of language.
By picking a deceptively simple phenomenon--regular and irregular verbs--Pinker connects an astonishing array of topics in the sciences and the humanities: the history of languages; the theories of Noam Chomosky and his critics; the attempts to create language using computer simulations of neural networks; what there is to learn from children's grammatical "mistakes"; the latest techniques in identifying genes and imaging the brain; and major ideas in the history of Western philosophy. He makes sense of all this with the help of a single, powerful idea: that language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammer of creative rules. His theory extends beyond language and offers insight in the very nature of the human mind.
About the Author
The Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Steven Pinker has been named one of Timemagazine's "Hundred Most Important People in the World Today," and has been awarded numerous prizes for his research, teaching, and books. He is the author of six books, including How the Mind Worksand The Blank Slate(both Pulitzer Prize finalists and winners of the William James Book Prize), as well as Words and Rulesand The Stuff of Thought. He is a frequent contributor to Time, The New Republic, and the New York Times.
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