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Hardcover The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature Book

ISBN: 0670063274

ISBN13: 9780670063277

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature

(Book #4 in the Language and Human Nature Tetralogy Series)

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Book Overview

This New York Times bestseller is an exciting and fearless investigation of language from the author of Rationality, The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Sense of Style and Enlightenment Now.... This description may be from another edition of this product.

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

facinating book

This is fascinating book. English is not my native tongue and I was always wondering why there are so many usage idioms in tense, verbs and propositions. Actually, they are not strange exceptions at all. This book explains the subtle "rules" behind: * verbs like "load", "fill" and "pour" and why "pour the glass with water" and "fill water into the glass" sound strange. * the difference between tense and apsect. * under water (rather than inside water) and after dark (rather than light) The book also explores many other aspects of the language and mind, which is written in a clear and entertaining way.

Language - a window to the way our minds work. Good and clear insights from Pinker.

Once Steven Pinker gets over his difficult first chapter (he's hunting around trying to find first gear) this book really takes off. Pinker uses the way we structure our language, with all of its grammatical rules and foibles, as evidence of how our minds work. Thus if we accept that children don't learn grammar by rote memory, but more through induction and the creation of general rules, then we can see that the way these rules are framed are a reflection of the way we think. Pinker cites hundreds of references, dozens of fascinating experiments, and calls on - often with great wit and brio - many entertaining examples of our language and what it really says about us. A whole chapter on "the seven words you can't use on television" shows the almost magical qualities we attach to words. For me the most fascinating work in this book focuses on the way we speak indirectly to each other, often alluding to what we mean to say. Why say: "It would be awesome if you would pass the ketchup," when we really mean "Pass the ketchup." The answer lies in our complex social brain: and our desire to get on with others by removing the power implications of a direct order. Pinker takes his examples much deeper than this. This is wonderful reading for people who are either fascinated by the human mind, or fascinated by our living language - or both. Five stars.

The best writer on the subject of language

For the verbivore, no one sets out a feast like Steven Pinker. For my money, The Language Instinct is still the best, most comprehensive, and most entertaining introduction to linguistics ever composed, and I have been waiting for more than 10 years for this book (Words and Rules was also a great book, but a little technical for my taste; I am more drawn to semantics than grammar). The Stuff of Thought can be a little technical as well. After an introduction in the most appealing Pinker style, chapters 2 and 3, on the ways verbs imply metaphorical categories and the reasons competing language theories are wrong, are both persuasive and engaging, but only if you think about them really, really hard. I remember feeling the same way about the sentence trees and bushes early on in The Language Instinct. But the rewards for the persevering reader comes later. Should you find yourself bogging down, skip to the chapter The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, which treats the subject of George Carlin's famous monologue in a manner that is more comprehensive and penetrating (sorry), but at times equally hilarious. That should provide the fuel to travel the rest of his landscape. The subject of this book is incredibly important and it represents the culmination of a number of themes. Pinker himself says that it completes two parallel trilogies of books he has been writing for the past ten years, and I also read this as the fulfillment of Lakoff and Johnson's brilliant 1980 book "Metaphors We Live By," which lists the fundamental ways our physical reality structures our mental constructs, as revealed by pervasive metaphors. Pinker argues convincingly that Lakoff's later work pushes the metaphorical envelope too far, but he agrees that metaphor provides key insights into thoughts and understanding. He explores the theme of how language reveals and subtly shapes the ways the human mind makes sense of the world in a comprehensive, thoughtful, and compelling manner, carrying Lakoff's initial premise to a compelling, comprehensive theory of the function of metaphor in language and thought. The linguist S.I. Hiyakawa observed that the last thing fish would think to study would be water; as we increasingly live in a world where words impinge on our every moment of consciousness, unpacking language helps us all understand the way it reveals and shapes our mental worlds. It also helps us understand what is not up for debate, and one of Pinker's most compelling themes is the universal community of human minds revealed by language commonalities. Pinker's philosophy of language somehow makes me feel both that language reveals individual creative genius (often in unexpected speakers) and a central set of commonalities among all human minds. As a final note, the beauty of Pinker's writing in itself is sufficient reason to read this book. As a language lover, I find it a discouraging irony that so many linguists are so poor at articulating their arguments and

Why doesn't a hammer 'ham'?

If waiters wait and bankers bank, why don't hammers ham? Stephen Pinker asks this question along with numerous other questions in his interesting and enlightening book "The Stuff of Thought", which focuses on the bizarre quirks of language and its interaction with human conception. He also wonders why we abbreviate things but end up making them longer (it's longer to say 'www' than 'world wide web'); why the f-bomb is considered obscene, but the word 'rape', with its vile definition, is not; and how the tautological phrase 'enough is enough' actually says anything worthwhile. The reader will be quite familiar with the bizarre quirks in the English language that Pinker brings up and they will certainly come to the same conclusion that there may be rhyme, but no reason. Among dozens of entertaining anecdotes and studies, Pinker reveals that what we take in in language is not what we actually conceive or remember and this mismatch is the root of much of the antagonism in today's society. One study described in the book showed that we don't remember exact sentences, but we remember the gist of the idea. This leads to insight on how the human brain actually works. Pinker explains how Schankian reminding (placing a new concept in the same mental basket as previous events) is why we humans are so smart but also why language is so abstract and imperfect. The brain may be able to respond to 10,000 words, but it puts all of them in just seven basic constructions of thought, which most languages work with: basic concepts, relationships, taxonomy, spatial concepts, time line, causal relationships, and goals. Pinker is witty, but doesn't waste time getting technical though the entire book is fairly approachable by a non-scientific mind. The book is reminiscent (Schankian?) of Stumbling on Happiness and delves deeper than another interesting book on language, Words That Work. However, there is no unifying idea and the book really just serves to sum up the oddities in our language. Despite this, the book deserves many rereads and is recommended to anyone who is interested in society, culture, psychology, or why hammers don't 'ham'.

Good Stuff

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker Is there a difference between the meanings of these two sentences? (1) Hal loaded hay into the wagon, and, (2) Hal loaded the wagon with hay. Well, Steven Pinker claims there is a difference and it's a difference that reveals something about the way the mind conceptualizes experience. That is "the stuff of thought" with which Pinker's latest book is concerned, and this "stuff," as he convincingly demonstrates, can be made accessible through a careful analysis of "the stuff of language," i.e., word categories and their syntactic habitats. In the case of the two sentences above, we can see the human capacity to frame events in alternate ways through the dual function of verbs like "load." This verb draws attention to the hay and its movement in the first sentence, but to the transformation (a kind of metaphorical "movement") of the wagon in the second. That children can learn the dual use of "load" and the dual conceptualizations that it entails, and distinguish this verb from others (like, say, toss) that don't work in both sentences (E.g., we don't say "Hal tossed the wagon with hay" even though we can say "Hal tossed the hay into the wagon") is evidence that distinct ways of thinking underlie our ability to master language. There are, after all, many thousands of verbs that fall into scores of different categories based on their applicability to different contexts like those involving Hal's hay in the cases above. Pinker believes that our ability to learn the subtle distinctions that control these and other word usages is evidence of their role as reflectors and enablers of the basic elements of human thought, elements like causality, animation, possession, time-as-space, and so on. Pinker faces quite a challenge in bringing to life profound truths about human nature through a systematic, fine-grained analysis of mundane words like "drip" and "pour," but he succeeds admirably. This is a book that will amply reward a careful reading. Of course some words are inherently more interesting than others, and for my money the chapter on "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" is by itself worth the price of the book. A number of features that help condemn a word to the realm of taboo are revealed here. For example, there are clear syntactic distinctions between the usually unprintable words for sex (which Pinker, I'm happy to report, audaciously prints) and their more presentable cousins, such as have sex, make love, sleep together, copulate, etc. I had never before noticed that the taboo and vulgar forms, which tend to specify physical motion, differ from the non-taboo terms in that they usually occur in a subject-verb-direct object construction (e.g., Austin shagged Vanessa). The more respectable terms lack a direct object and do not specify "a particular manner of motion or effect." Furthermore, they are semantically symmetrical, so that if Austin
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