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

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.

Paloma M. Vazquez
  • 29 september 2011

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.


Volvo's Self-Driving Trucks Will Soon Be Put To Work In An Underground Mine

Automotive Today

Toyota Is Using Sewage To Power Its New Electric Car

A new hydrogen-fueled vehicle is driven by what we flush away

Culture Today

Catch A Concert On This Small Floating Island

A man-made archipelago in Italy is hosting music and art performances


Get PSFK's Related Report: Future of Automotive

See All
Design & Architecture Today

DIY Kit Lets You Build Your Own Wooden Bike, Boat Or Caravan

Woodenwidget says its detailed guides are suitable for beginners and experienced woodworkers alike

Related Expert

Mona Hamouly

Social Media Marketing

Design Today

Crash-Friendly Drone Made From LEGOs Is Completely Rebuildable

The clever device offers games, education and the uniquely rewarding experience of destroying your high-flying airship

Fitness / Sport Today

Free Sneakers Given Out To Motivated Marathon Runners

Strava will give the shoes to athletes who run the second half of their race faster than the first

Culture Today

Someone Invented A Robot Just To Serve Trays Of Beef Jerky

Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz, in partnership with Chef's Cut Real Jerky, creates an automated snack delivery system


Future Of Automotive
Scenarios Driving The Digital Transformation Of An Industry

PSFK Op-Ed Today

Digital Design Expert: Mobile First Is Dead, Think Mobile Native

Brian Cooper, chief creative officer of OLIVER Group UK, explains how some brands are still playing catch-up to new technology

PSFK Labs Today

The 10 Steps To Discover, Hire, Develop Your Next Leader

PSFK's Future of Work report outlines key steps in the employee development path to empower next-gen leaders

Millennials Today

Why A Social Networking Site Decided To Rebrand

Meetup, a platform that connects like-minded individuals, has taken steps to stay relevant amongst millennials

Work Today

Editorial Roundtable: The People-First Workplace Should Borrow From Tradition

Managed By Q, Soma, Workbar, Primary, AltSchool and thinkPARALLAX underline the old-fashioned ideas that deserve a place in the Future of Work

Fashion Today

Handbags Crafted From An Old NFL Stadium

People for Urban Progress is an up-cycling program that tackles the waste problem of big demolitions

Work Today

Tech Job Site Created Just For Those Who Are Older Than 30

A new occupational job board presents a creative solution to age discrimination in the tech world

Europe Today

Architect Turns A Giant Smile Into A Public Exhibition

The structure offers visitors a new perspective of London and creates an immersive environment that integrates structure, surface, space and light


Future Of Work
Cultivating The Next Generation Of Leaders

Children Today

Norwegian Kids Are Using Their Phones To Log Unsafe Street Conditions

Travel Agent is an app that gamifies the reporting of hazardous conditions to improve the safety of children's commute to school

Travel Today

Google Wants To Help You Plan Your Next Trip

A new app curates vacation itineraries and organizes reservation emails to take the work out of planning a getaway

Technology Today

Small Handheld Analyzer Checks Oral Hygiene On The Go

The breath-detecting gadget gives people a quick and easy peek into their dental health

No search results found.