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A Way with Words: Language and Human Nature
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A Way with Words: Language and Human Nature


A Way with Words: Language and Human Nature
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JOE PALCA, host:

For the rest of this hour: What we say and what it says about us.

In his new book, "The Stuff of Thought," evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker takes us on a tour of the way we use language, from baby's first babblings to the F-word. Pinker shows how the way we used language tells us something about human nature and about our culture. From our euphemisms and innuendos, to the way we express concepts such as space and time, to what we find funny - it all depends on language.

If you'd like to join the conversation, I invite you to give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK, and you can find more information about our topic at our Web site,

And now, formally, to introduce my guest, Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He's the author of several books, including "The Blank Slate" and "How the Mind Works." His new book is "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature."

Thanks for coming in to the bureau today, Dr. Pinker.

Dr. STEVEN PINKER (Psychology, Harvard University; Author, "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature"): My pleasure.

PALCA: So, you know, as I was watching - you were sitting here with me, we were talking to Dr. McDonald of brain - spinal cord injury. Do you find that writing about words focuses you on the words that you're hearing all the time? I mean, I wonder if you're having a meta conversation with yourself about what you're really hearing when someone's speaking about something.

Dr. PINKER: Not always, because if I did pay too much attention to the subtleties of word meaning and to grammatical constructions, then the content would go by. So in listening to the content, I'd rather turn off the inner linguist. But often, when I hear something odd in a conversation or a turn of phrase strikes me in a cartoon or a newspaper column or a novel, I will write it down and ponder what makes it work.

PALCA: So is there - I mean, your book is - I think I can - here's a good time to use the word replete, with anecdotes and examples of things that words reveal. Is there a - it's almost as if the whole picture - there's such an extremely interesting forest out there - and of course we've only got a minute and a half before I take a break - but is there a giant picture that we should know of before we even start this conversation about why words are important?

Dr. PINKER: Human nature is a fantastically rich subject. We've got an inventory of thoughts. We've got a range of emotions. We have a certain number of social relationship types, and I think these can be laid bare by a language. One can develop an inventory of what are the basic thoughts by looking - by dissecting verbs, by looking at components, like cause, change, place, path, acts, goal.

One could get an inventory of our negative emotions by looking at the number of swear words that vary from one language to another. You can get a catalog of our social relationship types by looking at what people are touchy about when they choose their words and fail their intentions and innuendo.

PALCA: Okay, well, we have another 40 minutes to consider all these topics, but right now we have to take a short break. So please stay with us while we talk with Dr. Steven Thinker about his new book, "The Stuff of Thoughts."

We'll be right back.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


We're talking with Dr. Steven Pinker about his new book "The Stuff of Thought," what language tells us about human nature. We'd like to hear your questions as well. Please, feel free to join the conversation and tell us what language quirks you've noticed and what you think they mean. Maybe that will be interesting. Our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK.

And maybe I can go back. You relate the musing anecdote of the French - the American tourist in France, who thinks that it's so remarkable that all these little French children are learning French at such an early age. And in a way, there's a subtlety to that observation that really is interesting about what you're saying in this book because it is required that children, in order to master the language, learn a phenomenally complex set of rules, which they seem to do, not effortlessly, but certainly much faster than adults trying to pick up a foreign language.

So how did these rules, I mean, how - I know there's a debate about how much of these are innate and how much of them are learned, but how does this process work? How do children do it?

Dr. PINKER: Yeah, that's a puzzle that I take up in depth in some of my earlier books like "The Language Instinct," and it figures into this one when we look at how children figure out the meanings of words and how to combine them. And this is really a focus on meanings of words. So when a child says, can you fill salt into the shaker, you know exactly what the child means. You have to pause as to why that sounds a little bit odd. We usually say fill the shaker with salt, not fill salt into the shaker.

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Dr. PINKER: And in figuring out why the child would make an error like that - something that they clearly have not memorized from their parents - you realize that they have done a pretty sophisticated analysis of the meaning of fill and of the syntax of fill - what direct object you can use, what prepositional object. And on close examination, the error reveals a pretty deep and sophisticated analysis of meaning.

In this case, experiments that I've done have shown that children actually think that fill means pour, and pouring is construed as causing stuff to move. Filling is construed as causing a container to change state, from empty to full. The same event, moving some stuff to a place can be construed in two very different ways - doing something to the salt, doing something to the shaker. Children as young as three years old seemed to be sensitive to that. So that if they construe the event in a different way from adults, they also choose a different syntactic construction to express that thought.

PALCA: So, turning it backwards that sophistication tells us what about our human nature.

Dr. PINKER: In this example, it says that we don't just record a videotape of physical events around us, but we analyze them in terms of pretty abstract categories. I mean, if salt goes into a shaker, that's - the physicist can describe the trajectory, but the human mind has to categorize it. Categorize it either as a change of position of the salt or a change of state of the container. Same matter moving through space, two very different mindsets. Now, that's something as simple as how you describe putting salt in a shaker. But the ability to frame reality in multiple ways lies at the heart of our political and moral discourse, our poetry and fiction, our scientific descriptions of the world.

To give you some political examples, the difference between, say, invading Iraq and liberating Iraq refers to the same events, but brings in very different interpretations. Or redistributing wealth versus confiscating earnings. Those are two descriptions of the same transfer of resources, but each of them carries a very different theory as to what's going on, and that's why we argue about them.

PALCA: Huh. Now, let's scroll forward 200 years and as a colony of humans living in lower Earth orbit on a space station, and they're in microgravity so fill the shaker with salt and pour salt into the shaker no longer have that meaning. What would…

Dr. PINKER: Yeah.

PALCA: …those children learn about the rules of linguistics?

Dr. PINKER: Well…

PALCA: The rules of language, I mean.

Dr. PINKER: What would happen is that their particular dialect of English would change. It's…

PALCA: And so your prediction would be that fill the salt into the shaker might be an acceptable use of the language in that circumstance.

Dr. PINKER: It's certainly possible. If they lived with a physics affecting the world differently, the language might change to correspond to the way they understand their own surroundings.

PALCA: So is there a theory of language that would predict the different outcome than the one you're predicting?

Dr. PINKER: Well, yeah. For many decades, it was thought that the way a verb gets slaughtered into a sentence was arbitrary, something you just have to learn like an irregular verb. And that's because it just seems to be so quirky. Even linguists who stared at this sentences just couldn't make a head or tail out of the quirks of words - why you can say, load hay into the wagon and load the wagon with hay, but pour water into the glass but not pour the glass with water, and fill the glass with water, but not fill water to the glass. And the idea was that as you learn your language, you simply make verb-by-verb entries into a mental dictionary one at a time, you just memorize them. And you don't make any predictions because there aren't any rules to guide the predictions.

This theory would suggest that there are regularities but they depend on the cognitive construal of the event. The categories like cause of change of state versus cause change of location.

PALCA: Well, I'm probably can ask questions for the entire hour, but I think it would only be fair if we gave our callers a chance as well. So let's go first to John(ph) in Naples, Florida. John, welcome to the program.

JOHN (Caller): Hi there. Thanks for taking the call.

PALCA: Sure.

JOHN: I don't mean to take it down. I do speak two languages and I understand some variations in the way people express things. But lately, I've been observing or - yeah, observing people, saying an expression that I don't really understand. They say, like for example, the truck needs washed, or, you know, it needs cleaned. And I don't know if it's unique for this area or if it's something that I'm just not familiar with.

Dr. PINKER: Yeah. Actually, that's been in some dialects of American English for a long time. We all omit to be in certain constructions. You can say the baby seems to be hungry or the baby seems hungry and the meanings are pretty similar. We don't even notice that you can just leave out the to be. In some dialects of English, I think it's western Pennsylvania, you can say the car needs washed instead of the car needs to be washed. That's perfectly clear what that means. And whether a verb like - a construction, like the passive as a compliment to a verb can live without the to be is somewhat arbitrary, but it has entrenched itself in some parts of the country. So what you're hearing is not a new development, you've just been exposed to a sub-subdialect of American English that you never heard before.

JOHN: Interesting.

PALCA: John, thanks for that call.

Let's take another call now and go to Jeff(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Jeff, welcome to the program.

JEFF (Caller): Hi. And thanks so much for taking my call.

PALCA: Sure.

JEFF: Dr. Pinker, I have your book "The Blank Slate." It occupies a prominent position in my personal library. And I want to say that linguists like Tolkien and Lewis have always been the agents of self-examination for society. But I'm troubled, Doctor, about the propensity, it seems, among younger people today to use the f-bomb, if you will, as an adjective. The sky just isn't blue, why, it's F-ing(ph) blue. And how is that corroding - is it corroding or is it changing the language that we speak today? Thanks so very much.

Dr. PINKER: Well, of course, it isn't that new that the F-word has been taboo in English for a number of centuries. And it's explosion into - just a source of idioms, what's sometimes called the F-patois, where every word gets modified by F-ing, probably originated with the Second World War soldiers. But then, you're right that it spread to more and more of the population.

We used to have this quaint notion of what you should say in mixed company, namely in front of women and locker room language to swear like a sailor, indicating that this is always around, but it often was confined to groups of macho young males.

And there is a general trend in Western culture for increased informality, for macho styles to no longer seem aggressive but to just be signs of coolness or edginess. And the spread of the F-word in very casual context I think is part of that trend. I, too, find it rather tedious. And - but it isn't just the youth of today, it's been going on for quite some time.

PALCA: Yeah. And we do have - it's an interesting conundrum for broadcasters to be in this circumstance because everybody - I presume people know what we're talking about but we're obviously - we're not allowed to say those things for fear of violating standards, which I - I don't know. I mean, it seems an odd problem to confront the society that we have to be aware that the words we might choose might, under some circumstances, seem offensive to certain people even when we're objectively talking about the subject of whether words are offensive in some circumstances. It's a hard thing to - hard - what, I guess, may be a Gordian Knot to cut your way out of.

Dr. PINKER: Yes. In fact, there are some regulations prohibiting what you can say on broadcast media that cannot be recited on those very media. So these are laws that prevent criticism of themselves, so to speak.

PALCA: Right. Right. Well, that's the - I think that's the best way to go. And there's a - for those of you who find your way to reading Dr. Pinker's book, you'll find an entire chapter devoted to the use and the laws that we're talking about here. But we won't be talking about that for most of this hour.

Let's take another call now and go to Michael(ph) in Lansing, Michigan. Welcome to the program, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Thank you very much. How are you doing, Doctor?

PALCA: Sure.

Dr. PINKER: Fine, thank you.

MICHAEL: Really, I didn't want to get off track myself either with the question, but I'd really like to hear you talk a little bit about, you know, the natural decisions that we make with what's right and what's wrong with language. And maybe I'm going to hang up after the question, but may you just talk a little bit about where we get our natural sense for language and the path that we take for them. And also, I'd like to - for the listeners, if they could visit It really gives you meaning to the applications of science today.

PALCA: Okay. Michael. Thanks for that. Let's hear Dr. Pinker's thoughts on that.

Dr. PINKER: Well, people do have very strong feelings about what's correct and incorrect in language, which is a mystery to linguists because there actually isn't anyone who decides what's correct or incorrect. And probably, eight out of ten of the judgments of what's correct or incorrect have no basis in anything. People will say it's incorrect to use hopefully to mean it may be hoped that or one mustn't split an infinitive, or you can only use since to refer to time, not to logic. And there's no rhyme or reason to a lot of these prescriptions. And if you go back to the history of language, you find that many brilliant writers have always used the forms that have been deemed incorrect.

So there is this great disconnect - who writes these rules, and where do they come from? And often it's very hard to find out. I think because language is a code. It's a protocol. It's a - something that we hope our listeners have internalized so that when we put words together, we can be confident that they will get the message that we are trying to insert using that code. That gives rise to an intuition that it ought to be standardized. That if it isn't, you just have no confidence that anyone will know what you're talking about.

And so the intuitions of what is a standard often run way ahead of what can meaningfully be said to be standardized, since there is no body of legislators that decrees what's correct and what's incorrect.

PALCA: We're talking with Dr. Steven Pinker, the author of "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature." We're taking your calls at 800-989-8255.

I'm Joe Palca, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

In the context of words and their proper usage, the one that's bothered me in the last decade or more is grow the economy. And I never - I don't know why that feels wrong to me. I mean, I keep thinking, well, you can grow a tomato and you can grow, you know, a word, I suppose, but why do you think I - is there some reason for me to be feeling like grow the economy feels like a new usage or something has changed?

Dr. PINKER: Yeah. I share that intuition, although I bet we would both be surprised if anyone did the research to see how long that expression has been around in a language. I suspect it's older than either of us thinks. But it does grate on my ear as well, and in the book I discuss this very phenomenon, turning intransitive verbs into transitive ones.

Now, we do it all the time. We say the water boiled; I boiled the water. The ball bounced; I bounced the ball. And there are very - it turns out that there are very restrictive subsets of verbs where we can do that naturally, and others where it's more of a stretch. And so to - generally, verbs of change of state like the butter melted; I melted the butter - there, it's fine. But for the economy growing, it's not really changing state. It's expanding continuously, and one feels more squeamish about applying it.

Some other examples in my collection, which is of the same phenomenon in the Macintosh operating system, sometimes it tells you hover the mouse over an icon. And, for me, hover is an intransitive verb. Or to sleep the computer, press the button for two seconds - namely to cause it to sleep. We tend to be fairly conservative about turning intransitives into transitives.

PALCA: Well, but maybe - I'm thinking maybe, part of what bothers me is I do feel - maybe I'm misunderstanding transitive and intransitive - but I feel that growing an apple is somehow a transitive verb, at least, in the sense that I planted it in the ground, and I watered it, and I'm doing something to the seed. I'm growing the seed. Anyway, am I growing the apple?

Dr. PINKER: I happen to pore over that case, but here's my first hunch.

PALCA: Okay.

Dr. PINKER: When you grow an apple, you're actually - it doesn't refer to just making the apple bigger and bigger and bigger. It really refers to causing the apple to come into existence or, at least to be in a state in which you can harvest it.

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Dr. PINKER: Let's say so and so farmer Joe grows apples. You don't mean he starts off with medium-sized apples and he ends up with larger apples. What you mean is he starts with no apples whatsoever and he causes apples to come into being.

PALCA: All right.

Dr. PINKER: And I think it's that change of state…

PALCA: Right.

Dr. PINKER: …which allows intransitives be turned into transitives, which is stretched to the breaking point for grow the economy.

PALCA: That's right. Because my son grows, but I'm not growing him.

Dr. PINKER: You're not growing your son, even if you feed him protein and vitamins.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Well, I don't know. He seems to be drinking a lot of milk, hence, the milk coupon in the book I handed to you a few minutes ago.

Well, we're going to have to take a short break. But I do encourage people to join this conversation about language by dialing 800-989-8255. And if you happen to be on the "Second Life" and wandering around the Science School area, there's a - we're listening for your questions in that area as well.

So stay with us, we're taking a short break now, and then we'll be back to talk some more with Dr. Steven Pinker about his new book "The Stuff of Thought." Stay with us.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


And on this program, we're talking about language. And my guest is Steven Pinker. He's the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of several books including "The Blank Slate," and "How the Mind Works." And the book we're talking about today is his new one, "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature."

And you spent a fair portion of the book discussing how humor works and how language is important obviously to humor, and why it's important. And there is a passage, which I - you know, I don't get to read and laugh out loud very often, but I did in this and I've made other people. So I'm going to put you on the spot and say, could you read this one example that you gave of how language and humor work?

Dr. PINKER: Okay.

(Reading) During the final days at Denver Stapleton Airport, a crowded United flight was cancelled. A single agent was rebooking a long line of inconvenienced travelers. Suddenly, an angry passenger pushed his way to the desk and slapped his ticket down on the counter, saying I have to be on this flight, and it has to be first class. The agent replied, I'm sorry, sir. I'll be happy to try to help you, but I've got to help these folks first. And I'm sure we'll be able to work something out.

The passenger was unimpressed. He asked loudly so the passengers behind him could hear. Do you have any idea who I am? Without hesitating, the gate agent smiled and grabbed her public address microphone. May I have your attention please, she began, her voice bellowing through the terminal, we have a passenger here at the gate who does not know who he is. If anyone could help him find his identity, please come to the gate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Why is that - I mean, first of all, maybe you can - I mean, I hate to operationalize jokes, but why is that funny? What does that - what rule are we violating there that seems amusing?

Dr. PINKER: Well, most jokes involve some kind of descent of dignity. There has to be a butt of a joke, someone who is putting on airs and is taken down a few pegs. And the arrogant, wealthy person, who feels entitled to special treatment and who is taken down by his supposed inferior, namely the airline clerk, gives a deep delight of the blood.

So I think that's what makes it funny as well as a good linguistic example. One of the reasons I included is that it illustrated the phenomenon of indirect speech. The logic of the joke is that when the man said, do you know who I am, he was not, of course, actually requesting the information. It was a rhetorical question, an indirect speech saying, I happen to be a very important person.

By interpreting it, literally, of course, she gave us the punch line, but she also illustrated that many of these statements are not intended as literal and that there's a kind of jujitsu of interpreting it literally when it isn't intended that way.

And a lot of our language is not literal. We veil our sexual come-ons, our threats, our bribes, even our polite requests in innuendo and doublespeak. And the interesting question is why we have to resort to this hypocrisy.

PALCA: Yeah. There was another example, which I hope I don't hopelessly butcher by not reading it from the book. But I think I can tell that the joke of the two hunters, which you tell toward the end of the two hunters walking through, and one of them suddenly collapses to the ground unconscious, apparently, and one of the other - the one who's still upright, calls on his cell phone and says, you've got to help me. It's an emergency. And says, my colleague has just collapsed and I think he's dead.

And the caller says - the 911 operator says, okay, now, calm down. I'm sure I can help you. First, are you sure he's dead? And the phone goes - dead, you know, the phone goes quiet for a minute and you hear it blam(ph). He comes right back and says, yup, he's dead. Now, what do I do?

PALCA: Which is, by the way, voted the world's funniest joke in an Internet poll - I mean, it's droll, but…

PALCA: It's a good joke.

Dr. PINKER: The world's funniest.

PALCA: But again, nobody is taken down. It's this misinterpretation of the literal meaning versus the figurative meaning, which is why it's funny, I guess.

Dr. PINKER: That's right. I mean, well, someone is taken down and in this case the not-very-bright hunter that interprets the request literally so that he get to enjoy his stupidity.

PALCA: Right.

Dr. PINKER: But, yes. Once again, you can't take the syntaxes of questions at face value, and therein lies a tale.

PALCA: Okay. Let's take another call now and go to Ken(ph) in Minneapolis. Ken, welcome to the program.

KEN (Caller): Hi. Yes. I have a question. First, I like that droll joke that you just told. And I like the word droll. It reminds me of an old postcard I saw at my parents' attic. It said, betwixt the optimist and the pessimist, the difference is droll. The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist the hole. But anyway, I had a - and my favorite joke is only two-words long. How about that?

PALCA: Really?

KEN: You want to hear it?

PALCA: It's clean, right?

KEN: Just - yes.

PALCA: Okay.

KEN: Yes. Absolutely. Okay. It was - and I'll give credit where it's due. It's from "The Simpsons." It was one of these - you know when they give an advertisement, there's - and that word advertisement fascinates me because it originally meant warning. But anyway, at the end, especially with drugs, they give disclaimers.

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

KEN: You know, at the end, or if you make an offer for some contest or something. So they give the disclaimer at the end. It was two words long. It went like this. Offer void.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEN: I just love that. Anyway, my real serious question was about language -and you're talking about how language exemplifies modes of human thought. But what is the - how does it go - does it go the other way? To what extent does language influence thought?

Dr. PINKER: That is a major theme of the book. And there's a widespread belief that we think in our native language. And so that if a language doesn't have the means to express some concept, it's unthinkable. Or that speakers of different languages think in fundamentally different ways because of the syntax of their language, that people who speak language with the subject comes before the verb construe the world differently than those who speak a language where the verb comes before the subject.

I'm skeptical of the strong forms of those claims, partly because we see language change so rapidly that it suggests that when you have the need to express a concept and your language isn't up to the task, you change the language.

Also, when you think about it, who designed the language and therefore dictated what we could think? It wasn't designed by a committee of Martians, but it emerges as a grassroots phenomenon, as people have thoughts and need to find a way to express them. And even the question of how a child could acquire a language in the first place is a total mystery, unless you assume that kids some have some ability to construe the world without the benefit of language, they could connect their thoughts up to the words that they hear coming out of their parents' mouths. It's not as if children are cryptographers, that they are simply listening to raw noise and reproducing it. They're connecting words to thoughts that they must be able to have independently of having those words in constructions.

So it's certainly not that language can - doesn't affect our thoughts, but I think the major arrow of causality is in the other direction, namely, a language reflects human nature rather than shaping it.

PALCA: Thanks, Ken, for that call.

KEN: Thank you.

PALCA: We have, as I mentioned, some people who are gathered in the Science School area on "Second Life." And we have someone with the name Bjorlin Lune(ph) who asks what is Dr. Pinker's thoughts on the differences in online text language? It's well, I don't know if that's particularly unusual example right there. But have you noticed? Have you done any study about that usage?

Dr. PINKER: I haven't looked at virtual worlds like "Second Life." But certainly, everyone has noticed that the language that you use, say, in e-mails, has to be chosen with care, partly because of the phenomenon that the Denver Airport joke illustrates, namely that you - much of our speech can't be taken at face value. We're always reading between the lines and listening between the lines, applying everything we know about human social relationships to figure out what are - what the person at the other side of the conversation is really getting at. It helps when we can watch their facial expressions, when we know the person personally, when we can listen for the tone in his or her voice.

In an e-mail message, all of that is missing. And so, you're apt to misinterpret what someone means. To think that when they're asking for a piece of information, they're insulting your intelligence. And it's one of the reasons, of course, that the emoticons - the little smiley faces - emerged to help resolve some of that ambiguity that ordinarily would be resolved non-verbally in face-to-face encounters.

PALCA: Yeah. It's interesting that you mentioned that. When I read transcriptions of live radio broadcasts like this, it sometimes sounds as if either - more often than not - I, but sometimes, my guests are incoherent because the spoken language that they're using doesn't necessarily track as written language. Hence, one of the things I like about radio is that I can -people can infer how certain or knowledgeable you are about your topic, not just by the words you choose but by the way you use them. So I find it - yes, it is got to be different between written and print. I wonder how that affects writing a book? Do you think about that?

Dr. PINKER: Oh, very much. I first noticed this one way back in the '70s, when I read the Watergate transcripts, which, for many people, is the first time that they ever saw a transcript of conversation on the printed page. And it is shocking to see how incoherent most people are. Then, I've encountered it again when, occasionally, people would ask me to give a lecture and want a written version. I said, no, I'm sorry. I'm too busy to write out my talk. And they said, oh, no problem. We'll tape it. We'll transcribe. But they will just send it to you for - you can fix up the punctuation.

When I looked at what I - a transcript of what I say - even when I'm feeling kind of good about it, like I thought I was really on that night, I sound -look like a gibbering idiot. Because so much of spoken language requires the listener's forgiveness, requires the listener to fill in the gaps. When it sits on a printed page, ripped out of its context and has to be seen from - afresh, nothing can be left to the imagination. And that's why the art or writing and the art of speaking can be so different.

PALCA: We're talking with Dr. Steven Pinker about his new book, "The Stuff of Thought." I'm Joe Palca and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take another call now. And if I'm doing this right - one, two, three, four - yes, I think I've got Perry(ph) from La Crosse, Wisconsin. Welcome to the program.

PERRY (Caller): Welcome. Thank you. The last comment by the doctor made me think of all the professional sports athletes you hear that just said, you know what I'm saying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PERRY: But originally, I was thinking of the linguistics of completely invented languages like Klingon, or Tolkien's elvish, and then of course my favorite creature Yoda, the inverse of verbs that they use for Yoda has really always struck me as odd and interesting. And maybe that's why he's such an endearing character.

PALCA: Possible. Interesting thought. You know, I was just - it's funny you mentioned that because I was just reading in the paper that someone had a big gap between the subject and the verb of a sentence, and I thought, I wonder if this is German person. And it turns out he was, because that's more common style in the German language, to put the verb toward the end of the sentence, if I'm right.

Dr. PINKER: Yes, that's right, at least in any embedded sentence, the verb has to go at the end. In the main clause, you have a verb or auxiliary in second position. And that led to Mark Twain's hilarious satire, the "Horrors of the German Language," based on a speech he gave to a German audience, in flawless German, which he then translated word for word into English with hilarious results.

PALCA: Yeah. And you used David Berry to good effect in your book as well. I'm tempted by my success with grow of the economy as an example of something you hadn't heard. This is one other example that you may be are completely familiar with and I haven't - you've talked about extensively in other of your books that I haven't read. But you know the sense that some languages allow a negative and a positive to make a negative. And some languages like, don't not do that, is a double negative, is considered bad English.

Dr. PINKER: Yeah. I can't get no satisfaction.

PALCA: Right. But they say there's no language that where a positive and a positive equals a negative. And the answer of course is, yeah, right.

Dr. PINKER: Yeah. Or yeah, yeah.

PALCA: Yeah, yeah.

Dr. PINKER: That was a real example from the late philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser at Columbia.

PALCA: Okay. Well, I'm glad that I was at least on to something. Let's see. Let's do another call now and go to Jeffrey(ph) from Cincinnati. Welcome to the program.

JEFFREY (Caller): Thank you. I'm thinking about your conversation of children learning language. I have 3-year-old twins and I'm bit amazed…

PALCA: Oops. Well, something just - something very bad just happened.

Dr. PINKER: He went to the tub.

PALCA: All the calls went away. It's sort of the phone lines seem to have died.

Dr. PINKER: He didn't even say anything obscene.

PALCA: Right. So in any case, he was - probably he was asking about his 3-year-old child and how children learn to add -ed to make the past tense.

Dr. PINKER: Ah, funny you should ask. I wrote a whole book on that.

PALCA: Uh-huh. Okay. There's another example…

Dr. PINKER: "Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language" was on that very topic, and why children make errors like we holded the baby rabbits; or the alligator goed kerplunk. And a book on irregular past tense forms might seem like the ultimate case of knowing more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing.

PALCA: Right.

Dr. PINKER: But I tried to use it to show how language is composed of combinatorial rules that allow children and adults to express new thoughts by rearranging familiar elements like a verb or the past tense -ed in lawful combinations.

PALCA: And there's one other part of your book, which was very entertaining, about the appearance of children's names and that you talked about Steven as going in and out of vogue.

Dr. PINKER: Right.

PALCA: What was that all about?

Dr. PINKER: This is a…

PALCA: But Joe seems to have stayed away for quite a while now.

Dr. PINKER: Yes, although, it's newly popular. They are very few Joes when I was a child. You know, my lament is that all my life I've been surrounded by Steves because it was a very popular name in the 1950s when I was born. And you can date a lot of people's births by their name. You know that an Ethel or Mildred is probably a senior citizen, and a Linda or Nancy is probably a baby boomer, a Jennifer is a 30-something, a Caitlin or a Chloe is probably a child.

And this shows that names rise and fall in popularity. And an interesting question I take up is why particular names become popular in particular times. And the interesting finding is that none of the reasons that you might think of are true. My colleague Stanley Lieberson at Harvard has tested every hypothesis about how names reflect cultural phenomena. And you can rule out every one of them. It's not true that biblical names are more popular in times of religious observance. It's not true that women's names derive from men's names like Roberta are less popular because of feminism. Pick your hypothesis and you can refute it.

PALCA: Well…

Dr. PINKER: Really a matter of pure fashion, of people cocking an ear to what sounds moderately distinctive compared to the names that are out there, and a lot of people seeming independently to come into the same conclusion at the same time as to what's distinctive.

PALCA: Okay. Well, that's where end. Dr. Steven Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology in Harvard. He's the author of several books, and his latest one is "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature."

Thanks for joining us today.

Dr. PINKER: Thank you.

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