2007-11-23: Words and Rules

Words and Rules

The Ingredients of Language (1999)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

This book is about two fundamental types of mental machinery – perhaps the two fundamental types of mental machinery. Pinker uses the breadth of linguistic study into the irregular forms of nouns and verbs to illustrate the notion that we have two types of memory and associated processing: factual and procedural.

On page 23, he has a diagram like this:  <need to find and reproduce diagram>

In constructing utterances from a desire to express a thought, it is necessary to retrieve some words from the lexicon, and apply rules to put them into intelligible order. Pinker spends a great deal of the book elaborating on aspects of this idea, and shows how the patterns of regular words, the less-obvious patterns of irregular words, and the mistakes made by children and others shed light on the ways that this picture must be at least approximately right.

His case is persuasive, and consistent with many other ideas he has presented in his other books on cognitive science. I skipped this book when it first came out, as it seemed too much about linguistic minutiae, and not enough about the workings of the mind. But of course the most distinct aspect of human minds, compared with others, is the capacity for language.

I found parts of the book slow going, particularly when he dwells on the experiments that verify or disprove one or another theory. At this stage, I am ready to accept a lot on faith, when it is consistent with my ideas of how the mind works; and Pinker has contributed significantly to those ideas.

I read the book after finishing The Stuff of Thought, and that might be a good order for an impatient reader.


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