Scoop Review of Books

Words are the Window to the Soul


the_stuffof_thought.jpgWhat does language tell us about ourselves? When we swear, or reach for a jaded metaphor (‘time is money’), make a simple request (‘Would you mind passing the salt?’), or simply choose a transitive verb over an intransitive one, are we revealing more of ourselves than we realise?

That’s the question at the heart of Stephen Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, a 499-page journey through the psychology behind language – in particular, the question: does language reveal human nature? (Spoiler alert: if you want to skip a lengthy read, the short answer is… yep).

Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, has written popular books on language (The Language Instinct, Words and Rules) and human nature (How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate). The Stuff of Thought effectively brings together both strands, and once again confirms Pinker’s gift for bridging hard science and everyday experience, for entertaining without dumbing down.

The Stuff of Thought opens with the question: was the collapse of the twin towers a single event (two towers falling) or two events (one tower falling and then another)? Though the question might seem trite, it’s at the heart of a $US7 billion court case between the towers’ owners and insurers (one event and the payout is $US3.5 billion, two and it’s double). Pinker’s point: there is no such thing as mere semantics.

Pinker shows how verbs reveal an innate sense of cause and effect, and therefore of morality. Calling on another real life example, he asks: if you shoot someone and he dies on the operating table, not from the bullet wound but from medical incompetence, are you a murderer?

There’s a chapter on metaphor, which turns out to be surprisingly ubiquitous in our speech (‘I see what you mean’, ‘I’m feeling up/down,’ You’re pushing me into a corner’) and, arguably, in our patterns of thought.

To illustrate just how far metaphor reaches, Pinker offers an entertainingly literal-minded translation of the US Declaration of Independence: Some people are hanging beneath some other people, connected by cords. As stuff flows by, something forces the lower people to cut the cords and stand beside the upper people, as required by the rules. Again, though there’s fun to be had, this is not mere semantics: differing views about so-called ‘framing metaphors’ are influencing the US presidential race and have also emerged in New Zealand politics (see below).

There are also chapters on naming, swearing (Pinker mentions New Zealand epithets ‘Don’t get your tits in a tangle’ and ‘Shit, oh dear’) and on what languages reveals about how we get along with others. Why, for example, do people say ‘Would you mind passing the salt?’ instead of ‘Please pass the salt’? And why did the United Nations Security Council after the Six-Day War in 1967 leave the crucial word ‘the’ out of its resolution calling for Israel to withdraw ‘from territories occupied in the recent conflict’?

As he did in The Language Instinct, Pinker convincingly sets out a middle path in the hoary old nature versus nurture debate. It’s not either/or, it’s both. Certain concepts and ways of thinking are hard-wired into our brains, but culture and individual learning shapes those innate concepts.

We’re hard-wired, for example, to view social relationships in any of three ways – solidarity (as in families and friends), authority, and exchange (as in the relationship you have with someone you buy goods from). But the rules guiding each relationship type – and therefore the type of language we use – differ from culture to culture.

Likewise, we have a hard-wired concept of small numbers (one, two and many), but our concepts of larger numbers is learned. And we have an innate concept of objects in space and in relationship to ourselves, but how we define those relationships can be cultural (one mountain-dwelling tribe in Mexico uses the terms ‘uphill’ and ‘downhill’ in preference to ‘left’ and ‘right’, even when inside).

This isn’t the easiest of Pinker’s books. Though it’s told with his trademark skill and vigour, its subject matter makes it a little denser than any of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, or The Blank Slate. But, as a window through language into human nature, it manages to be both challenging and entertaining.

Oh, and we swear for lots of reasons, including the obvious: shock value. You might be interested to know that some Eskimo languages have 50+ words for snow. And that English has 1000 words for penis.

What does that say about human nature?


To find out more about framing metaphors in New Zealand and US politics, see the 2005 New York Times Magazine article The Framing Wars, chapter 10 of Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men, and Labour Party candidate Clare Curran’s 2006 Labour regional conference presentation Language Matters (PDF).

Bernard Steeds ( is a Wellington writer.

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1 comment:

  1. Helen Wilson, 19. April 2008, 13:26

    People interested in the relationship between language and power might like to look at post-structuralist writing in particular that of Foucault who explores the relationship between power, discourse, and knowledge. It is not easy reading but there are secondary authors who use a Foucauldian approach to explore these issues in a more accessible way.