Running Head: A REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 1The Stuff of Thought by Steven PinkerA Book Report2015-06905University of the Philippines-DilimanA REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 2The Stuff of Thought by Steven PinkerA Book ReportTrue to its title, The Stuff of Thought is an exhilarating ride into the workings of themind. With a subtitle as promising as “Language as a Window Into Human Nature”, the bookdoes not disappoint. What better way to peep into the human experience than to examineswearing, sexual innuendos, baby names, jokes, and legal controversies? These seeminglymundane parts of our everyday lives offer invaluable insight as to how language is related toour thought processes. To date, there has been much debate on different issues inpsycholinguistics. Steven Pinker does not fail to tickle his readers’ grey cells by presentingcomprehensive angles of these matters.Any conversation about language would not be complete without the discussion ofwhether or not language is ingrained in the wirings of our mind the moment we are born and ifso, to what extent. In light of the current body of research available, it is only rational to arguethat there exists a balance between the level to which language is innate and learned.Pinker presents the case of radical nativism, as laid out by Jerry Fodor, an extremenativist who posits that there are roughly 50,000 concepts readily available to us humans.Fodor suggests that because word definitions always leave out something in a word’s truemeaning, it is logical to assume that a word is an indivisible atom whose meaning lies in theword itself. He states that anything not decomposable is innate. Furthermore, the position ofNoam Chomsky, another supporter of the innateness of language, should be explored (Carroll,1986). Chomsky emphasizes the role of linguistic universals. This is quite interesting becauseit is indeed amazing that language, the very thing that sets each nation apart, is the samething that offers unifying mechanisms. He states that in the case of language acquisition inwhich children are able to rapidly learn a language in a span of a few years, children follow aA REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 3universal grammar. An example of such linguistic universals is the semantic categories ofagent, action, and object. To further add to the discussion of linguistic universals, Pinkertackles politeness, which in linguistics refers to the adjustments speakers make to avoidputting off their listeners. Politeness is seen to be common among many languages. Over 25languages have various unspoken linguistic rules to avoid awkwardness and discomfort indiscourse. There are also studies of sign language in deaf children in Nicaragua who on theirown were able to develop their own sophisticated means of communication (Carroll, 1986).Moreover, studies have shown that neurological processes are involved in languageacquisition (Lenneberg, 1967). Needless to say, neurological processes are biologically built inour system, beefing up the innateness argument.Despite the convincing points and evidence supporting the innateness of language, thenotion that language is learned is also heavily backed up. Emphasis on the significance of theenvironment is in order when talking about language as something learned. For one, even theradical nativist Jerry Fodor agrees that experience serves as a trigger in order for theknowledge of some innate concepts to be activated. Also, Chomsky, in what he calls thelanguage bioprogram hypothesis, acknowledges the role of the environment when he pointsout that an innate grammar is made available when there is insufficient linguistic input from ourcommunity (Carroll, 1986). There have been numerous studies regarding the effect ofexperience and environment on language acquisition. Developmental delays in language havebeen seen in the cases of feral and isolated children who lack language exposure from fellowhumans (Lane, 1976; Curtis, 1977). This is related to the critical period hypothesis whichstates that there is a certain period in which we are geared for language acquisition, stressingthe importance of interaction with speakers of a language (Carroll, 1986). Once we are pastA REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 4this stage, it becomes more difficult to learn a language. Another point to look at is mothereseor parentese, defined as adult-to-child language, juxtaposed with adult-to-adult language(Gleitman, Newport, & Gleitman, 1984). The motherese hypothesis states that the ways inwhich adults vary their speech when dealing with children affect children’s languagedevelopment. There has been some support to this claim. For instance, children were found touse more auxiliaries when their mothers used more yes or no questions (Furrow, Nelson, , 1979).Taking these arguments and evidences into consideration, it can be said that bothenvironment and innate mechanisms come at play in language acquisition. In order for normallanguage to occur, it is ideal that these two factors work together. However, more studies areneeded to determine which between the two, if any, is or are necessary and/or sufficient forlanguage acquisition.It has been a wonder how children so quickly learn their native language. This questionwas what led Chomsky to the claim that children draw grammatical generalizations and rulesfrom a finite set of events. This shows bottom-up processing which was also discussed byPinker. In this type of processing, basic and/or broad meanings, characteristics, and otherstimuli are examined first. From here, one goes up until contextual information are accessedand rules are identified or generated. Language acquisition in children is just one illustration ofthe importance of bottom-up processing in language processes. The use of bottom-upprocessing is also seen in reading in which we systematically deal with letters and words inorder to extract information (Gough, 1972). Studies on fixations and eye saccades alsoelaborate on the function of bottom-up processing in reading (Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989).Fixations are the periods during the course of reading wherein eyes come to rest for about aA REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 5quarter of a second at a particular section, and saccades refer to the rapid jump to the nextfixation. It has been found that skilled readers process letters and words carefully rather thanskip through a large number of words. Moreover, when words in a sentence cannot be easilypredicted from earlier words, bottom-up processing comes in handy (Treiman, 2001). Forexample, consider the sentence “The man came from a party.” The word “party” is not easilyactivated by the preceding article “a” as a great number of words can be put to fill in thiscontext. Furthermore, bottom-up processing is seen in action in the cohort model of auditoryword perception (Marslen-Wilson & Welsh, 1978). The cohort model states that in the courseof perceiving and comprehending spoken language, a set of lexical candidates are activatedupon hearing phones and phonemes. In this initial access stage, words are activated in astrictly bottom-up manner in that the lexical candidates are triggered solely on the basis ofacoustic-phonetic cues.The importance of top-down processing should not go unnoticed. We use top-downprocessing when higher level features such as context or umbrella rules are accessed in orderto make sense of more basic data. Context undeniably plays a key function in languageprocessing. Rarely do we perceive words in isolation. Rather, our encounters with wordsalmost always occur within discourse. Pinker examined top-down processing in action ininterpreting everyday dialogue. He tackled indirect speech acts which are utterances whoseliteral and intended meanings are not one and the same—more specifically, they do notnecessarily communicate information but instead has the goal of effecting an action (Carroll,1986). An example would be, “It would be great if you would go on a date with me. Are youfree tomorrow?” Here, the speaker is not simply stating her/his hypothetical belief that s/he andthe person s/he is talking to would have a grand time if they go out on a date. Moreover, s/heA REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 6is not simply expecting a yes or no reply to her/his question. Most would be able to surmisethat s/he is implying an invitation. This not-so-subtle invitation cue is called the illocutionaryforce. In determining the sincerity of a person who “does” indirect speech acts, felicityconditions are assessed. Felicity conditions refer to the ability and willingness of the personbeing addressed to actually perform the action asked of her/him. Most of the time,understanding the true nature of indirect speech acts is very easy it is almost automatic. Still,other times, it requires more effort from the listener. Regardless, considering the context isessential. In the example above, if the listener only heard the question, s/he may be confusedand not be able to easily get that the person is actually asking her/him out. S/he would have touse top-down processing in considering factors such as their current state. Meanwhile, if s/heheard the preceding statement, top-down processing would still be at work. In this case,context is more readily accessible as the first statement already lays it down. Pinker alsocovers the topic of ambiguities in which a statement or a question can have multiple possiblemeanings. When I hear, “You killed it!” I can either express it as a form of praise or utterdisappointment. Only when I consider the context—Did I perform well in a singing competitionor did I ruin a friend’s party by being a little drama queen?—would I be able to discern whatmy friend meant. In the same way, sarcasm, as mentioned by Pinker, can be misinterpreted ifone does not understand the context where it was uttered. Fortunately, studies have found thatthe right hemisphere of our brain comes to the rescue during instances such as these as it iswell-equipped in understanding the meanings of ambiguous statements with alternativemeanings (Kaplan, Brownell, Jacobs, & Gardner, 1990).A REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 7Top-down processing is also put on the spotlight in some models of languageprocessing. In the cohort model, top-down processing is manifested in the process ofelimination (Marslen-Wilson & Welsh, 1978). In order to filter out some words from the initialcohort, the candidates undergo selection and integration where factors including contextinfluence the decision of which words to drop. In the TRACE model by McClelland and Elman(1986 as cited in Carroll, 1986) where cognitive units for the feature, phonemic, and wordlevels are assumed to be activated to a certain extent at a given time, there is much emphasison the use of top-down processing in phonemic processing as well as in the influence ofactivation of word units on phonemic units.Following the importance of context in discourse is the talk of pragmatics. Pragmatics isthe study of how language is used in light of social rules (Carroll, 1986). Pinker notes that thepurpose of human conversation is not simply to exchange information, but equally if not moreimportantly, it is to satisfy social needs. He emphasizes the characteristic of humans as socialbeings. He presented the view of radical pragmatics. In radical pragmatics, it is argued that thetrue definition of a word is not found in the dictionary. Instead, a word’s definition is how thepeople who have their own experiences of the word create their own meaning through theirinterpretation and association of these personal and collective experiences. Thus,interpretation is a rather loose process which draws on the knowledge and experiences of itsconversants. Pragmatics specifies the maxims governing language namely quantity (proposingthat we should say no more and no less than the conversation requires), quality (tackling thetruth of statements), manner (indicating that statements should be as straightforward andunambiguous as possible), and relevance (stating that we should strive for appropriatenesswith regards to current times). These maxims are what allow us to discern ambiguities andA REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 8confusion in conversations brought about by incomplete and irrational logic. They also aid usin drawing out alternative or underlying meanings of indirect or nonliteral statements as well aseveryday irony and sarcasm.Pinker notes that there are different expressions of politeness throughout differentlanguages. In many European countries, pronouns are used to express courtesy andpoliteness. For example, in French “tu” is used when in informal conversation whereas “vous”is used in place of “tu” when speaking to a respected person. On a personal note, I havenoticed that some Filipino languages do not place much gravity in the use of “po” or “opo”.When speakers of these languages converse with speakers who are accustomed to thesewords, they are sometimes misinterpreted and thought of as coming out rude anddisrespectful.Although I acknowledge that context and social rules are not the only guiding factors inlanguage processing, I strongly believe that these are indispensable aspects of our everydayconversations. We have indeed let these social rules shape our world as we know it, and wecontinue to do so, though unconsciously.This leads me to my final argument, that language does influence the way we think.This is consistent with the weak form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as discussed by Pinker.One argument under this hypothesis is that language influences the ability to reasoncounterfactually. There has been a rather heated debate on this issue. Bloom (as cited inCarroll, 1986) posited that compared to English speakers, Chinese would find it more difficultto reason counterfactually because the Chinese language does not possess the subjunctivemood. He argues that Chinese speakers, when asked for their opinion on hypotheticalsituations, would answer by simply saying that the situations presented were untrue, unnatural,A REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 9or unrealistic. Au (as cited in Carroll, 1986) then provided a counterargument to disputeBloom’s hypothesis. Au noted that the stories that Bloom used in his study were not idiomaticin Chinese. Au revised Bloom’s experiment and tested it on Chinese students. The findings ofthe study indicate better performance of Chinese students. However, Bloom presented arebuttal saying noting that the participants in Au’s study were Chinese students who havetaken 12 years of English classes, effectively qualifying them as bilinguals and thus invalidatingthe arguments regarding distinctions between the two languages. Finally, in the hopes ofresolving the methodological issues of both studies, Liu (as cited in Carroll, 1986) devisedanother experiment. Here, Liu drew participants from a sample of monolingual Chinesestudents and used both abstract and concrete stories. The results revealed that the absence ofa linguistic marker for the subjunctive mood did not burden the students in reasoningcounterfactually. However, this study still is unable to disprove the study of Bloom for thereason that this study did not involve English speaking participants. Hence, scores of theChinese students could not be compared to those of English speakers. Pinker presents astudy by Hauser and Spaulding suggesting that counterfactual reasoning is part of our primatebirth right. Hauser and Spaulding experimented with rhesus monkeys. The monkeys were atdisbelief when shown causally impossible events.Studies on color terms suggest that perception of colors is dependent on the termsused to refer to them (Kay and Kempton, 1984 as cited in Carroll, 1986). Moreover, Robert,Davies, and Davidoff (2000) have found a direct relationship between linguistic categories andperception and memory of colors (as cited in Carroll, 1986). These findings are in support ofthe weak for of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.A REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 10Additionally, studies on number terms indicate that linguistic representations ofnumbers influence mathematical thinking (Stevenson, Lee, & Stigler, 1986 as cited in Carroll,1986).With regards to object terms, it was found that the dominance of nouns and verbs in alanguage has an influence on the timing of children’s cognitive achievements (Gopnik, 2001 ascited in Carroll, 1986).Grammatical markings of gender are also shown to provide support for the weak formof hypothesis. Speakers of languages such as Spanish that mark grammatical gender wereseen to have the tendency to group objects with considerations of these grammatical genders(Martinez and Shatz, 1994 as cited in Carroll, 1986).These evidences make it hard to deny that language does have an influence on ourcognitive processes. Though there are other factors such as environment and motivation thatcertainly affects our thought processes, there is sufficient support to put language among thelist of what makes up the stuff of thought.Overall, The Stuff of Thought was both a refreshing and challenging read. It is notevery day that I come across a book that makes me laugh while keeping me baffled andcurious at the same time. However, one thing I noticed was that Pinker rarely givesresolutions to the issues he presents. He lays down a wide variety of studies, discussions, anddebates but these are often inconclusive and vague. This may be for the simple reason thatideas studies are still in conflict with each other and research that is a one-size-fits-all isalmost impossible to come up with given the complexity of language.Integrating the works of Pinker with the discussions in class certainly affirmed thenotion that language in whatever form is indeed complex. Still, it must be noted that the depthA REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S THE STUFF OF THOUGHT 11and range of the current body of research as well as numerous growth areas inpsycholinguistics gives a promising and hopeful future for the understanding of how the mindworks, complex as it is.