Saturday, September 22, 2007

Mind the gap

Two articles on the psychologist and language guru, Steven Pinker appear in this week's papers ahead of the publication of his new book The Stuff of Thought. In The Times the focus is on how and why new words are created in the English language and what this tells us about human nature. the second is a more detailed survey of Pinker's career that takes in his views on child language acquisition and language and thought.

In the first article, an extract from his book, Pinker looks at the processes of new word creation, giving a range of interesting examples of compounds, conversions, metonyms, affixes and borrowings, all of which should help a student of language change. But maybe more interestingly, he starts to look at some of the reasons why these new words stick - or more usually don't stick - in the language.

In the second article, the focus is on Pinker's developing views on language acquisition, the connections between thought and language, and evolution. Pinker points to the central metaphors of language as evidence that we have an inborn structure to the way we think about the world:
There is an inborn structure to the way we think, he argues, and language offers us clues to it. Take metaphor: no matter what tongue we grow up speaking, we seem to come equipped with a large toolkit of ways to think about things in terms of other things. We talk about love as a journey, for example ("we've come a long way together"), and use space as a proxy for time ("let's push that meeting back an hour"). "Children will occasionally make errors like 'we better pack now, because tomorrow we won't have space to pack'," Pinker says. That sentence conforms to the basic rule - thinking of time in terms of space. But according to English convention, it's wrong; adults don't go around saying it, so children can't just be parroting their parents when they make that mistake. This, Pinker argues, points towards some kind of innate cognitive machinery, predisposing us to think of time as if it were space, and to make many similar transitions from the abstract to the more concrete.
So, are we all programmed to think the same way? Do we actually have any control over the way we perceive the world? Is language part of our cognitive machinery or a completely separate element of us? I'm confused and I need a man with big hair to explain it all.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition
ENA1 - Language and Representation

(thanks to Jason for tip on Times article)

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