Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Steven Pinker on language and thought

Part One
  • This is a picture of Maurice Druon, the Honorary Perpetual Secretary of L'Academie francaise—the French Academy. 
    • He is splendidly attired in his 68,000-dollar uniform, befitting the role of the French Academy as legislating the correct usage in French and perpetuating the language. 
    • The French Academy has two main tasks: it compiles a dictionary of official French—
      • they're now working on their ninth edition, which they began in 1930, and they've reached the letter "P." 
    • They also legislate on correct usage, such as the proper term for what the French call "email," which ought to be courriel
      • The World Wide Web, the French are told, ought to be referred to as la toile d'araignee mondiale—the Global Spider Web—recommendations that the French gaily ignore.
  • Now, this is one model of how language comes to be: namely, that it's legislated by an academy. 
    • But anyone who looks at language realizes that this is a rather silly conceit, that language, rather, emerges from human minds interacting from one another. 
    • And this is visible in the unstoppable change in language—
      • in the fact that by the time the Academy finishes their dictionary, it will already be well out of date.
  • We see it in the constant appearance of slang and jargon, in the historical change in languages, in the divergence of dialects and in the formation of new languages. 
    • So language is not so much a creator or shaper of human nature so much as a window into human nature. 
    • In a book that I'm currently working on, I hope to use language to shed light on a number of aspects of human nature, including the cognitive machinery with which humans conceptualize the world and the relationship types that govern human interaction. 
    • And I'm going to say a few words about each one this morning.

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