Language: The Words We Choose And What They Say About Human Nature

Harvard University’s Steven Pinker elaborates on what the study of language reveals about human nature and how we relate to and connect with each other.

Steven Pinker, the TED speaker and Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, spoke with The Big Think about how the study of language can provide a deeper understanding of, and insight into, human nature; specifically, how we engage and relate to each other. While Pinker’s past work has provided insight into how our minds predispose us to particular ways of learning and perceiving our reality through language, the focus of his conversation with The Big Think surrounds what he is most enthusiastic about today, and the direction of his current and future work. There were a few insights we found particularly interesting and thus surmised:

  • Pinker’s studies have previously focused on regular and irregular verbs within language, believing they shed light on what makes the mind work.
  • Language offers a window into human nature. It needs to be tailored to the kinds of thoughts and social relationships that we want to negotiate with one another. The language we use with our dear friends may not be the same language we use with our professional colleagues, nor with our broader ‘social network’. We choose our language based on how we want to be perceived – and what we want the outcome of our conversations to be (among other factors).
  • Language implies that the mind is a computational system. Our mental algorithm picks words out of memory’s store and attributes meaning to them based on their order, as well as the choice of words in question.
  • Pinker’s studies are now turning towards the interface between language and the rest of the mind – how language can illuminate our social relationships.  To illustrate, why so much of our language is veiled or indirect, vs. spelling out exactly what we mean (i.e., the difference between asking ‘what do you think of this haircut?’ and ‘do I have your approval?’). According to Pinker:

I’m interested in what that says about human relationships, about hypocrisy and taboo.  Also what it says about the kinds of relationships we have like dominance versus intimacy, and communality versus exchange and reciprocity.

Lastly, Pinker is interested in why we speak in — and rely on — metaphors. Many of these we’ve learned and repeat without pondering their genesis and initial meaning (which they undoubtedly possess). Because our use of metaphors supports the notion that we think abstractly, Pinker is looking for insight into what makes us ‘tick,’ and why we are so inspired and guided by language.

We’d love to learn more about the insights and findings that Pinker’s current studies yield — their implications for understanding how we engage with each other, the dynamics of language, and their role in human influence/persuasion, as well as how this may differ across cultures. Lastly, how do these dynamics change (if at all) among individuals that speak at least two languages? How does it shape/alter how we think, perceive and engage with each other? We’re fascinated.

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