Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Steven Pinker On Language and Thought

Part Two
  • Let me start with a technical problem in language that I've worried about for quite some time—and hope you'll indulge me in my passion for verbs and how they're used.
    • The problem is, which verbs go in which constructions?
    • The verb is the chassis of the sentence. 
      • It's the framework onto which the other parts are bolted.
  • Let me give you a quick reminder of something that you've long forgotten.
    • An intransitive verb, such as "dine," for example, can't take a direct object.
      • You have to say, "Sam dined," not "Sam dined the pizza."
    • A transitive verb mandates that there has to be an object there: 
      • "Sam devoured the pizza." 
      • You can't just say, "Sam devoured."
    • There are dozens or scores of verbs of this type, each of which shapes its sentence.
    • So, a problem in explaining how children learn language, a problem in teaching language to adults so that they don't make grammatical errors and a problem in programming computers to use language is—which verbs go in which constructions?
  • For example, the dative construction in English—you can say, "Give a muffin to a mouse," the prepositional dative, or "Give a mouse a muffin," the double-object dative, "Promise anything to her," "Promise her anything" and so on.
    • Hundreds of verbs can go both ways.
    • A tempting generalization for a child, for an adult or for a computer is that any verb that can appear in the construction, "subject-verb-thing-to a recipient" can also be expressed as "subject-verb-recipient-thing."
    • It's a handy thing to have, because language is infinite, and you can't just parrot back the sentences that you've heard.
    • You've got to extract generalizations so you can produce and understand new sentences.
      • This would be an example of how to do that.
  • Unfortunately, there appear to be idiosyncratic exceptions.
    • You can say, "Biff drove the car to Chicago," but not, "Biff drove Chicago the car."
    • You can say, "Sal gave Jason a headache," but it's a bit odd to say, "Sal gave a headache to Jason."
    • The solution is that these constructions, despite initial appearance, are not synonymous.
      • That when you crank up the microscope on human cognition, you see that there's a subtle difference in meaning between them.
    • So, "Give the X to the Y"—that construction corresponds to the thought, "Cause X to go to Y."
    • Whereas, "Give the Y the X" corresponds to the thought, "cause Y to have X."

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