Thinker Pinker on Stickler Stinker

22 01 2009

I just love words.
And thinkers.
And especially thinkers thinking about words.

So you could say Steven Pinker really speaks my language with his cognitive language-psychology view of why Roberts ironically mangled the Constitution as a “strict constructionist” — this is your brain on the conceit of strict constructionism:

In his legal opinions, Chief Justice Roberts has altered quotations to conform to his notions of grammaticality, as when he excised the “ain’t” from Bob Dylan’s line “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” On Tuesday his inner copy editor overrode any instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the Constitution by moving the adverb “faithfully” away from the verb.

President Obama, whose attention to language is obvious in his speeches and writings, smiled at the chief justice’s hypercorrection, then gamely repeated it.

Roberts can disagree with Pinker, of course, and so can you, but who is qualified to discredit Pinker’s expertise about how words work in the brain?

(10 years ago)
. . .with the publication of The Language Instinct in 1994, he took the mass of ideas and research that had been going on into the different branches of language and linguistics and explained them clearly, which was miracle enough, but also with a brilliant and witty eye for illustration. Keyser says “He was a careful worker, obviously a player. Then came The Language Instinct and he suddenly found a voice that may have been buried in his work but which I hadn’t seen before. And it was superb. It was the perfect tone about a really complicated field to an intelligent lay audience that had not been adressed.”

In the book, Pinker good-naturedly demolished the arguments of those he terms the “language mavens”, those guardians of correct speaking, and presented language as vibrant, flexible and constantly evolving. He also gave a transparent explanation of Chomsky’s notoriously difficult ideas about the evolutionary development of language and how it is represented in the brain – while remaining level-headed about their usefulness. . .
Pinker’s new book Words And Rules is full of his trademark asides; cartoon strips sit alongside an exegesis on Wittgenstein; he describes those areas of the brain responsible for language as having the appearance of roadkill. You can dismiss such leavening analogies as being glib, or praise Pinker for being accessible, but the underlying strength of his popular science writing is to explain with ease current psychological research in a decade which has seen exponential development in our understanding of how our brains function.

Words And Rules effectively starts out as a book about regular and irregular verbs, which sounds crushingly dull but is, in Pinker’s hands, compelling and revelatory in unlocking a crucial area of human psychology. The presence of verbs which form their past tense by adding the suffix “-ed”, regular verbs, and verbs which form their past tense in non-regular ways, is shown by Pinker to be an expression of a fundamental dichotomy in the way the brain functions. Language is generated by a combination of memory and generative rules, a process that applies equally to other areas of cognition. So when your three-year-old tells you they “bringed you a cup of tea” they may be technically wrong, but they are performing a mental task of almost bewildering sophistication.

According to Harvard neuropsychologist Alfonso Caramazza, it is for his observations of this duality within the brain that Pinker will be remembered as a scientist: “Steve’ s thinking about it is especially clear and because of that he has been able to formulate the questions more clearly than others and what kind of arguments are relevant.” Oliver Morton wrote in the New Yorker that How The Mind Works, “marks out the territory on which the coming century’s debate about human nature will be held.”



6 responses

22 01 2009

I’d describe our unschooling with these words, and who I want to be:
“. . . vibrant, flexible and constantly evolving.”

I like “almost bewildering sophistication” too! 🙂

22 01 2009
Nance Confer

I think it was a shameless snub and Pinker it too generous. And, as usual, Obama was a better person than I am and did not seem offended.

The rest of my household has said that it was just a mistake but I cannot imagine Roberts making the same mistake if McCain, or anyone else fitting the comfortable-to-Roberts image of the person who should be President, had been the one being sworn in.


22 01 2009

If that was being generous, I’d hate to hear how Pinker would mock me! 🙂

Didn’t he basically say Roberts for all his supposed legal brilliance, had the mental tolerance for ambiguity of a three-year-old? (Oh, and did I mention Pinker is an unabashed atheist?)

23 01 2009

I suppose I think it is generous to think that it was not done deliberately.

DId I misread? Wasn’t the mangled oath chalked up to the inner (and uncontrollable) working of the conservative’s brain?


24 01 2009

Well, maybe that’s generous, if it’s less insulting to be characterized as pompous and shallow and not nearly as in control of his mental processing as he fancies himself, rather than malicious. 🙂

25 01 2009

Either way, not a compliment. 🙂


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