Christian Long

Steven Pinker: Language and Thought

In TED Talks on April 19, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Reflection by DARCY S.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Steven Pinker:  Language and Thought

Let this title sit in my brain for a few minutes.

I remember that on the night that I chose to adopt this video, I thought to myself, “Well it shouldn’t be too hard to analyze. I speak a language and as far as I know, I think thoughts, so there mustn’t be too much processing to be done.”

Since we all know where the above sentence structure takes us, I’ll make is painfully blunt for every reader; I was wrong. In this video Steven Pinker practices the divine art of speech in this video, which makes the viewer not only think about language and thought, but also think about thinking about language and thought. After multiple viewings and readings of the interactive transcript I found myself suspended in a circle of very basic yet confusing ideas about all things language and thought related.

Thankfully, the title of Pinker’s presentation is an accurate representation. He simply talks about language and thought. Of course, it isn’t that simple; he talks about language and thought on multiple levels of relationships and circumstances in which they are used. While listening, though, I wondered to myself why I didn’t know this for myself. It was one of those astonishing yet humbly presented eye-opener TED Talks which deal with things dangling in front of our faces but are so close that we are never able to fully see or understand.

Pinker talks about very basic language constructions that are very obvious but overlooked when engaged in conversation. Sometimes we don’t even realize how our personal vernacular shifts according to circumstance. To make examples, nobody would interchange their level of respect held towards their closest friends and to their tyrant boss; too much invasion would happen which could result in job-loss. Language and relationships are directly related in this way. They move together on a spectrum which I have taken the time to create:

The good news is that it makes perfect sense, but the part I find myself struggling with is where do we go next?

Well after explaining different usages of verbs involving possession change or motion, Pinker asks the question why anybody should care about usages and construals and direct objects? Steven said, “there’s a level of fine-grained conceptual structure, which we automatically and unconsciously compute, every time we produce or utter a sentence that governs our use of language. You can think of this as the language of thought, or “Mentalese.”” This “mentalese” fascinated me. It’s an unconscious governing system that delicately chooses which constructions to implement based upon concepts that deal with space, time, causation and human intention. Pinker says these concepts are what Immanuel Kant believed to combine to form the basic framework for human thought. (More information on Kant can be found here)

This means that every time we hold a conversation we use this mental governing system (which is founded upon the same principles that govern thought process) to speak; just to put thought into words. This make sense; that every time we speak or write, we are simply transporting thought to verbal language or written words. Since the human brain thinks in terms of space, time, causation and human interntion, its natural that those same factors contribute to our linguistic decisions.

To conclude, I give this TED Talk high ratings. Its a good slice of information we can think about in the back of our heads anytime we read literature or have a conversation. Pinker has a marvelous way of communicating his ideas which makes a some-what drab subject into a fascinating window into the connections between the things that govern our thoughts and speech.


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