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Why Has Steven Pinker Studied Verbs for 20 Years?

The rules of language may reveal how our brains really work.

By Marion Long
Sep 17, 2007 5:00 AMMay 16, 2023 4:46 PM


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Fifty-three-year-old Steven Pinker may look like a rock star, but he is actually a linguistics explorer, hunting around the sentences and syntax of human language for clues (he calls them “rabbit holes”) to the inner world of the human brain. His favorite rabbit hole is verbs—what they mean, how they are used in sentences, and how, according to his latest book, The Stuff of Thought, kids “figure it all out.” Why so much attention to verbs? Pinker confesses in part it’s simply because he finds them fascinating. As one of his colleagues remarked, “They really are your little friends, aren’t they?”

For more than a quarter century, Pinker has been a driving force in linguistics theory, analyzing language in labs at MIT, Stanford University, and Harvard University, where he is currently the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology. At MIT he studied colleague Noam Chomsky’s theory of an “innate grammar,” testing to what extent language is biologically programmed. His research suggests that language is an instinct, an evolutionary adaptation that is partly hardwired into our brains and partly learned. This work led Pinker to develop his theory of the evolution of the mind and the source of language. He wrote about his work in four popular books: The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (1999), and The Blank Slate (2002). Although his books present scientific research, they have twice been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in part because they’re so much fun to read, with Pinker’s creative weaving of movie dialogue, snippets from novels, news headlines, Yiddishisms, even bits from comic strips.

In his books Pinker argues that the brain at birth is not simply a blank slate to be shaped by culture and experience. Rather, it comes programmed with many behavioral dispositions and talents. In other words, human nature is to some extent innate and shaped by natural selection. Not surprisingly, Pinker’s ideas have been at the center of some heated debates, most notably a recent controversy at Harvard, in which university president Lawrence Summers offered innate gender differences as a possible explanation for the dearth of women in the sciences.

In many ways, Pinker’s book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, which will be published this month, may be his most ambitious yet—an attempt to show that the entire range of human thought is built on the “scaffolding” of a few core concepts that shape our understanding of the physical and social worlds and form the basis for the way we interpret reality. We spoke with the researcher from his office in William James Hall at Harvard.

You’ve said that when you were growing up in the Jewish community in Montreal, you were surrounded by fervent devotees of all kinds of political philosophies, by passionate wars of language and ideas. Does this influence your efforts now to describe the universal patterns of thought underlying language? Certainly the argumentative intellectual community that I came from got me interested in these large issues of human nature, which I really think made me interested in the human mind. But I definitely wanted to study it in a way that was more tractable than just arguments around the dining room table. So I went into cognitive psychology.

In your best-selling book The Blank Slate, you argue that the infant mind is not an empty vessel that society can fill with whatever values and behaviors it chooses but rather that we are born with predispositions that are genetically determined. Why do you think these ideas are so controversial?

I think there are a number of reasons that looking at human beings as biological organisms can be unsettling. One of them is the possibility of inequality. If human nature is a “blank slate,” then by definition we’re all the same. Whereas if nature endows us with anything, then some people might be endowed with more of it than others are, or with different stuff than others are. And people who are worried about racial discrimination or class discrimination or sexism would prefer that the mind be a blank slate, because then it’s impossible by definition for, say, men to be significantly different from women. My response is that we shouldn’t confuse our political and moral position that people should be treated as individuals rather than prejudging them as a member of a category—a political policy that I think worth upholding—with the empirical claim that all people are biologically indistinguishable or that the mind at birth is a blank slate.

The second fear, I think, is that of dashing the dream of the perfectibility of humankind. If we were all blank slates, we could change what gets written on children’s slates and mold them into the kind of people we want. If people are born with certain drives, if certain ignoble traits, such as violence and selfishness, are innate, then that might make them unchangeable, and attempts at social reform and human improvement might be proven to be a waste of time. And there, too, my response is that what you find is that the mind is a complicated system of many parts, and there is room for social improvement in trying to get some parts of the mind to work against the others. For example, the frontal lobes, with their ability to empathize and to anticipate consequences of choices in the future, can override whatever selfish or antisocial urges may also be harbored in the brain.

A third fear is the fear of determinism, of a loss of personal responsibility. It’s the fear that personal responsibility will vanish if free will is shown to be an illusion. And here, too, these fearful reactions are a kind of non sequitur. Because even if there’s no such thing as a soul that’s separate from the brain and that somehow pushes the buttons of behavior—even if we are nothing but our brains—it’s undoubtedly true that there are parts of the brain that are responsive to the potential consequences of our actions, that are responsive to social norms, to reward, punishment, credit, and blame.

In your latest book, The Stuff of Thought, you discuss cursing and note that, in America, “the seven words you can’t say on television” have to do with sex and excretion. In other parts of the world, other types of words are more powerful, such as ones drawn from religion. Yes, it’s particularly noticeable to someone like me who comes from Quebec, where the worst thing that you can say to someone is “Goddamn chalice.” That really brings it home for me. We do have a trace of that in swear words like “hell” and “damn” and “Goddamn,” but they’ve really lost their sting, and it has to be related to the fact that religion has lost its power over many people.

I think the reason that swearing is both so offensive and so attractive is that it is a way to push people’s emotional buttons, and especially their negative emotional buttons. Because words soak up emotional connotations and are processed involuntarily by the listener, you can’t will yourself not to treat the word in terms of what it means. You can’t hear a word and just hear it as raw sound; it always evokes an associated meaning and emotion in the brain. So I think that words give us a little probe into other people’s brains. We can press someone’s emotional buttons anytime we want.

And there’s an additional layer, which would account for the fact that the content of swearing varies across history and from culture to culture. The common denominator is some kind of negative emotion, but the culture and time will determine which negative emotion is commonly provoked, whether it’s disgust at bodily secretions, or dread of deities, or repugnance at sexual perversions. The second, additional layer is that you recognize that the other person is evoking—and is intentionally evoking—that negative emotion, and you know that he knows that you know that he is trying to evoke it. That’s part of why it offends you. And that’s why the choice of word matters, as well as what the word refers to—why “the F word” is obscene, but “copulate” is not, even though they refer to the same thing. But you know when someone uses “copulate,” they’re referring to copulation, whereas when they use the F word, they are trying to get a rise out of you. So there again you get to the pragmatics as well as the semantics.

You say that in studying certain aspects of how children acquire language—specifically, how they learn to use verbs—you fell, like Alice, down a rabbit hole into a hidden world where you viewed the deeper structures of cognition. What did you see in that wonderland beneath the surface of our language? One very crucial rabbit hole involved figuring out how children learn to use simple verbs for putting things in places, verbs like fill, pour, load, or splash—verbs involving movement of something to somewhere. The problem was, how do you account for how a little kid, who has no prior knowledge of how a particular language works and who isn’t going to get explicit lessons about how to use which words in which circumstances, figures out what words mean and what sentences they can be used in? We adults, for example, will say “Fill the glass with water” but not “Fill water into the glass,” even though it’s perfectly clear what that means. We will say “Pour water into the glass” but not “Pour the glass with water.” And you know, “Pour the glass with water” is perfectly sensible, but it just doesn’t sound quite right. But with a verb like load, we can say either “Load hay into the wagon” or “Load the wagon with hay.” So you’ve got one verb that takes the container as the object, one that takes the stuff as the object, and the third that can go both ways. How do kids figure that out? Do they get it right to start with? The answer is no, not a hundred percent of the time. They do make some errors; they very occasionally say “Can I fill some salt into the shaker?” or “Stop pouring me with water.” But the errors are fairly rare, and most of the time they use them correctly, and they grow up to be us, who use them correctly. What are they latching onto?

It turns out that they’re latching onto different ways of framing the same situation. So if I go over to the sink and the faucet and the glass ends up full, I can think of that one activity either as doing something to the water (namely, causing it to go into the glass) or doing something to the glass (namely, causing it to change state from empty to full). That was the key insight to figure out why “fill” and “pour” behave differently.

If the simplest action, like putting some water into a glass, can be mentally framed in these two ways, with different consequences in terms of how we use words, that suggests that one of the key talents of the mind is framing a given situation in multiple ways and that a lot of insight into human thought, debate, disagreement, can come from thinking about the ways in which two different people—or one person at different times—can frame the same event. “Pouring water” versus “filling a glass” is a pretty mundane difference, but to speak of “invading Iraq” versus “liberating Iraq” or “confiscating earnings” versus “redistributing assets” would be more consequential. I think it illuminates the same aspect of our minds. This is a pervasive power of the mind; it’s seen in battles over perspective on all kinds of issues. It makes us capable of flip-flopping on a course of action, depending on how the action is described. It suggests limitations on our rationality—that we might, for example, be vulnerable to fallacies in reasoning or to corruption in our institutions.

Huey Newton, the cofounder of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, once said, “Power is the ability to define phenomena.” Isn’t that right in line with many of your observations?Yes, exactly. Although I would add that it doesn’t mean that these debates are just about words. The words are means for trying to change people’s minds, but there is something that you’re trying to change their minds about. We’re not just trapped in a world of language. Take “invading Iraq” versus “liberating Iraq”—those are different ways of framing the same military action, but there is a fact involved here as to which it is, and that depends on whether the majority of the population resented the former regime and welcomes the new one, or vice versa. So although you may choose one frame rather than the other in order to persuade people to believe the one thing rather than the other, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one frame is as true or as good as the other. This continues my general theme: It’s important to understand the great power of language, but one shouldn’t overestimate it. One shouldn’t think that we just live in a fantasy world of our own linguistic creations.

You say that language exposes our limitations, but you also insist that it can show us a way out of them. In fact, you have a linguistic superhero, don’t you, in the reality of the metaphor?Yes, I have two superheroes, actually. One of them is metaphor, the other combinatorics. Metaphor would be the way in which we transfer and transform ways of thinking that came from the realm of very concrete actions like pouring water or throwing rocks or closing a jammed drawer, and so on. But we can leach the content from them and use them as abstract structures to reason about other domains. We can talk about the economy rising and falling, as if it were a domain. We can use graphs to convey mathematical relationships as though they were lines and shapes drawn in space.

An enormous amount of scientific language is metaphorical. We talk about a genetic code, where code originally meant a cipher; we talk about the solar system model of the atom as though the atom were like a sun and moon and planets. And although we use these metaphors of concrete things to stand for abstract concepts, that doesn’t keep us from putting a different twist on those same metaphors of the concrete and using them to describe other and quite different abstract concepts. When we put together the power of metaphor with the combinatorial nature of language and thought, we become able to create a virtually infinite number of ideas, even though we are equipped with a finite inventory of concepts and relations. I believe it is the mechanism that the mind uses to understand otherwise inaccessible abstract concepts. It may be how the mind evolved the ability to reason about abstract concepts such as chess or politics, which are not really concrete or physical and have no obvious relevance to reproduction and physical survival. It can also enable us—when we lose ourselves in the words of a skilled writer, for instance—to inhabit the consciousness of another person.

You argue that metaphor and combinatorics should be keys to our education, that we should be taught to think and to use language in a way that will promote our development and productivity. Why?We must tap the mind’s ability to grasp things in familiar ways and then to stretch them to apply to new ideas and areas of thought. But we also have to be mindful of the fact that there are ways in which any metaphor may or may not correspond accurately to the thing you’re using it to explain. So just using or pointing out the metaphor isn’t enough. To make it true and useful, one then has to add all these qualifications, like, well, yes, it’s like this in one regard but not in another. So, for example, the mind is like a computer in that it depends on information storage, but it’s not like a computer in that its accuracy isn’t highly reliable and it doesn’t work serially but rather in parallel. Or that natural selection is like a design engineer in the sense that parts of animals become engineered to accomplish certain things, but it is not like a design engineer in that it doesn’t have long-term foresight. So the analogies in a metaphor can give with one hand but take with another. That is, it can give you insight but also lead to a lot of bogus conclusions if it’s used carelessly. But surely metaphoric insights, the seeing of resemblances and connections, can give rise, and have given rise, to countless innovations in science, the arts, and many other fields of endeavor.

Yet don’t you think that most education, and what most people believe education should be, is just the opposite of what you describe? Don’t many people think it should be a kind of indoctrination in our society’s conventional ideas?An important key to doing that is to tap the little kernel of motivation to know the truth and not allow ourselves to be fooled or misled. That’s there in everybody, somewhere. You don’t like to be lied to, by your friends or in your business dealings. So why would you want to be lied to when it comes to the origin of life or the fate of the planet?

This built-in bias is something that has been established by social psychology, called a self-serving bias or what you might call the “Lake Wobegon effect” (you know, that’s the place “where all the children are above average”). Well, a majority of people believe that they’re above average in any positive trait, or if not themselves, then certainly the group that they belong to.

Is there a particular kind of scientific or intellectual inquiry that you’re especially drawn to?Yes. I get drawn in when I feel there is something deep and mysterious going on beneath the surface of something. I spent 20 years doing research on regular and irregular verbs, not because I’m an obsessive language lover but because it seemed to me that they tapped into a fundamental distinction in language processing, indeed in cognitive processing, between memory lookup and rule-driven computation.

It’s intuition that tells me that, although I don’t understand the thing yet, and even though I don’t know what the answer is going to turn out to be, there’s something big there—something important—that I won’t be able to answer unless I understand a lot about the mind at a very deep level.

So my concentration on the choices of regular and irregular verbs was driven by my sense that it would reveal something about mental computation. The years that I spent studying verbs and what they mean involved a leap of intuition that this would be a way of tapping into human concepts and cognitive framing—in other words, the stuff of thought. That if you could really understand why the verb “fill” differs from the verb “pour,” and both of them differ from the verb “load,” you’d penetrate deeply into human thought patterns.

It’s a rabbit hole phenomenon—namely, there’s just a little opening, but there’s something very rich and deep and important and mysterious, something big, going on down there, beneath the surface. And that lure has always governed which phenomenon I chose to explore.

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