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Steven Pinker Tells Us about the Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker’s new book about language is called “The Stuff of Thought.” The relation between language and thought is clear, but controversial. Is language the stuff of thought, or is thought the stu

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Aired 7/2/09

Steven Pinker's new book about language is called "The Stuff of Thought." The relation between language and thought is clear, but controversial. Is language the stuff of thought, or is thought the stuff of language? Pinker tells us what came first, the word or the thought. We'll also talk about why so much of our language depends on metaphor, why we use profanity, what's in a name and why some words catch on and others don't.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Why are some words curse words, and why do we use them? Why is so much of our language metaphorical? And what is the actual relationship to our thoughts and the words we use to express them? Those are the kinds of questions posed by psychologist Steven Pinker in his book "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature." The book explains how language itself can tell us unexpected and fascinating things about ourselves. Last summer, Tom Fudge talked with Steven Pinker about language. Here's that interview.

FUDGE: Steven, let me start by quoting the Bible and this is the Gospel according to John. It says, 'In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.' Would you say that St. John was a linguistic determinist?

PINKER: I would say that he was a subscriber to word magic, the phenomenon where people think that a word is connected by the very nature of things to what it stands for and that if you ponder the word, you get insight into the thing. Now we all subscribe to word magic, despite the fact that linguists tell us that the relation between a sound and what it stands for is arbitrary. A word is just a label. It could be anything. But, nonetheless, we can't really separate the word from the thing. If I were to say nothing has gone wrong on this trip so far, I would immediately find some wood to knock as if merely saying that is going to tempt some evil god. People cast spells, they engage in prayer, as ways of changing the word – world. They fear swear words and other taboos as if merely uttering the word is an immoral act. They – Often mystics will try to divine the essence of something by analyzing the name or, in the case of, say, kabalau, assign a number to each letter and doing some math and trying to figure out the nature of God from the word for God. So these are all forms of word magic, taking words far too seriously whereas, in fact, they're just arbitrary labels.

FUDGE: Well, I use this fancy expression which I didn't know, of course, until I read your book, 'linguistic determinist,' and it sounds like one of the debates among people who talk about language is the question of whether language controls our thought or simply expresses thoughts that we're born with. Is that a good way to describe the controversy?

PINKER: That is one controversy, that's right. Whether language determines thought, whether it affects thought, if so how? Many lay people believe that we think in our native language. I think in English, or if people speak two languages, they think that they speak in one or the other – think in one or the other. But I think most psychologists now reject the strong version of the linguistic determinism hypothesis, the idea that we think only in words and that you can't think thoughts that are not expressible in your language. Where the controversy is, is over whether there's any significant effect of language at all on the way we think. Clearly, there are – there are certain circumscribed effects. For example, when you learn to multiply, you memorize eight times seven is fifty-six, that's a snatch of the English language. And when you have to do mental arithmetic, you play back that little snatch of English language as a little kind of look-up table.

FUDGE: Umm-hmm.

PINKER: The question is, is it any stronger than that?

FUDGE: You are a great admirer of the late comic George Carlin.

PINKER: Absolutely, yes.

FUDGE: I got that impression reading your book. And, of course, you have a chapter on profanity, The Seven Words You Can't Say On Television. We'll get to that later but in his monologue, his famous monologue, Carlin says that thoughts – we have thoughts and words, and thoughts, he says, are fluid and flexible but then when you attach a word to them, you're stuck with that word. And that seems to suggest that words are kind of like little dictators. Do they place a limit on the thoughts and ideas we allow ourselves to have?

PINKER: I think if you're a lazy thinker, they can. If you simply remember particular comments that someone has made and you don't try to think about them. But, no, I don't think we're imprisoned by our words or language because language is a human creation. Where would language have come from if people weren't capable of changing language and thinking thoughts independently of language? How would we learn language as children if we couldn't even think before we had a language? How does a language get in there in the first place if the child can't look at the world, figure out who's doing what to whom, what people are intending as a way of cracking the code of their particular language in the first place? People coin new slang, new jargon, new lingo. People like Carlin himself will call attention to language and say isn't this a silly habit that we have? Let's try to think our way around this way of construing the world. So there are all kinds of ways in which we think around language and when we talk, the words are kind of a tip of the iceberg of all of the processes that are going on in the brain when we understand it. For every sentence that we register, there are probably ten times that many propositions that are swimming in the background that allow us to understand that sentence.

FUDGE: Where do words come from? How do we make up these labels that we then attach to thoughts or objects?

PINKER: Obviously new words are a grassroots phenomenon. There's no committee that decides on names for things and then announces which ones will be part of the English language.

FUDGE: Well now, outside of France, there's not.

PINKER: Outside of France.

FUDGE: Yeah.

PINKER: And even in France, they really react to people's innovations and try to shovel against the tide of the natural change of language. So words are a grassroots phenomenon. Someone thinks up a new bit of slang, a cute expression, a bit of jargon, and if they're lucky, if they share it with people who are connected to enough other people, then it can catch on, it can spread like an epidemic and a new word is added to the language.

FUDGE: One of the most entertaining parts of your book, I thought, was where you talk about words that were identified maybe ten, fifteen years ago by specialists or something as 'hot' words, words that are really going to catch on there…

PINKER: Oh, yes.

FUDGE: …that are really unique and are going to become the way we describe this new thing. And you look at these lists of words and they're hilarious because they're words we may have heard once fifteen years ago but they obviously didn't catch on.

PINKER: That's like…

FUDGE: So, what's the problem? Well, yeah, give us an example of one of those words.

PINKER: Remember the information superhighway?

FUDGE: I do remember that but I – that's not an expression I use very often.

PINKER: No, that’s right. That's – it sounds very Al Gore. But from the 1992 presidential election. But, yeah, we don't call it the information superhighway, it's the web. And, you know, who knows why one caught on and the other one didn't. Another one is 'to Gingrich,' a verb meaning to exploit something for political purposes.

FUDGE: Because of Newt Gingrich, I suppose.

PINKER: Yeah, who was a kind of a flash in the pan in the mid-nineties and the experts predicted that that would be a new word in the language but as Gingrich fled from the public stage, so did the verb 'to Gingrich.'

FUDGE: And yet, spam as an expression…

PINKER: Spam stuck.

FUDGE: …to describe junk e-mail. What's the difference between information superhighway and spam?

PINKER: It's something of a mystery. And it's a bit like trying to predict what the next fashion or the next fad will be. It – there's a lot of caprice that goes into it so sometime in the – presumably in the 1980s, some kid turned his baseball cap around so that the brim was in the back instead of the front where it belongs. Makes no sense. Some other kid thought it was cool and copied it and a third kid copied the second kid and now everyone wears their baseball caps backwards. Who could've predicted that? Likewise, who could've predicted that a word that came from a Monty Python skit where a customer goes into a restaurant, asks what's on the menu, and the waitress says, 'eggs, spam, bacon, spam, spam, bacon, spam, tomatoes, spam and spam.' It reminded some hacker of the way that repetitive messages kept filling his in-box so he coined the verb 'to spam.' It spread to the rest of the hacker community and from there it escaped to the populous at large. But it's a little bit like wearing the baseball cap backwards; no one could have predicted it ahead of time. It happened by some kind of social contagion process because of the way social networks are arranged, and here we are and we have it today.

FUDGE: And Steven Pinker is my guest. He's Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and his latest book—he's written seven—is "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature." Let's get the call-in going with Meddie in Carlsbad, go ahead, you're on the show.

MEDDIE (Caller, Carlsbad): Good morning, gentlemen. I'm a 66 year old old-timer with – thank you, and I've been supporting Public Radio and Television for 45 years of my life. Now, if you bear with me, sir – I forgot your name, the author, the gentleman who wrote the book.

PINKER: Steve Pinker.

MEDDIE: Yes, sir. My comment is, and I have a question. I have a hard time with Generation X. English is a language of Shakespeare, I still say—and I learnt my English the Oxford way. I have an accent as I am a naturalized, proud American. Like we say we have learnt that we have hung the picture on the wall. Why is it that in schools—is the question—we allow our president to say 'none of the soldiers are coming home.' None is a singular pronoun. To me, it is wrong and none of the soldiers is coming home, either, each. I have a problem why we allow the language to be so dynamic, fluid, and I'm nearly done. Thank you for bearing with me. My daughter says, well, my teacher said. I say, well, with all due respect, your teacher is not a good English teacher. Sir, gentlemen, English is the language of Shakespeare we have Americanized, unless we want to take all the irregular verbs and put an 'ed' on the end of it, and it's an embarrassing – that Jesse Helms, God rest his soul, over Iran-Contra first said, and I quote, 'we have not bended the rules.' I cannot believe…

FUDGE: Okay.

MEDDIE: …that a Senate of the United States would allow these mistakes.

FUDGE: Okay, thank you.

PINKER: Thank you.

FUDGE: Thank you very much for calling in, Meddie. Meddie asked an interesting question. Why do we allow English to be so dynamic?

PINKER: Yes.

FUDGE: Some people would hear that and they would say, well, that's a good thing, right?

PINKER: It doesn't matter whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. It's – We have no choice in the matter because you can't control language. Unless there was a fascistic dictatorship of a kind that not even Orwell could have dreamed of, you can't control what half a billion English-speakers are going to say. And, in fact, we don't speak the language of Shakespeare. You go to a Shakespearian play and there's an awful lot of weird constructions and words that you've never heard of. You have to go to the dictionary to understand. Elizabethan English is very different from modern day British or American English. And, of course, the English in Shakespeare's time was, in turn, different from the English in Chaucer's time and it's very difficult to read Chaucer's English. That's – it's always going to happen simply because language is not codified the way the rules of NFL football are but, rather, they are – it is pooled from the way that hundreds of millions of people naturally speak. This isn't to say that we shouldn't be careful about elegant, clear, standard English. I think we should. But we also have to recognize that it is going to change over time and it is going to vary between the U.S. and the U.K. Just let me take some of the examples. The difference between learnt and learned is a – is basically a British-American difference. It Britain, they say learnt as well as learned. Here in the U.S., it's only learned. It's not a question, though, of the British preserving all of the irregular forms and the Americans regularizing them by adding 'ed.' Sometimes it goes the other way around. So, for example, he dove into the water. That is American, and the British-speakers raise their eyebrows at that.

FUDGE: They say dived?

PINKER: They say dived, exactly.

FUDGE: I didn't know that.

PINKER: And, likewise, there are many irregular forms that have long vanished from English. In Chaucer's time, the past tense of help was holp, the past tense of chide was chid. No one gets upset about the fact that people now say helped and chided. It is a process that has been going on for several centuries. In terms of bended, another example. Remember, we do have the expression 'on bended knee.' So, in fact, it's not the case that bended is some modern bastardization or distortion. It was a – in fact, if anything, it's an archaic form that has vanished and that Helms may – he may have made a speech error. People, about one-tenth of one percent of the time, people will make errors like rided or comed. And that may have been what he did but it's also possible that in certain southern dialects of the United States, there are preserved forms that were used in earlier stages of the English language that have survived in southern American English but have vanished from mainstream English.

FUDGE: Steven, right in the beginning of your book, you talk about this expression that people use when they describe something and try to trivialize a discussion, they say, oh, this is all semantics. It doesn't really matter. It doesn't – we're not talking about anything real, we're just talking about semantics. And right now, in California, we're going to vote in a couple of months about whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry and people have said the same thing about that. It's just that semantic difference because gays and lesbians have the same rights, you know, under marriage that they have under a domestic partnership. It's just semantics. Are semantics important? I mean, when – do semantics bring real consequences?

PINKER: You bet. My favorite example, one that is sadly appropriate today is a debate over how many events took place on September 11, 2001 in New York. You could say that it's one event because the Al Qaeda conspiracy was executed and unfolded on that day. Or you could say it's two events because tower one and tower two were hit at separate times by separate planes and collapsed at separate times. And this might seem like the height of nitpicking and niggling but it entered into a famous lawsuit where the owner of – the leaseholder of the World Trade Center had an insurance policy that entitled him to three and a half billion dollars per event. If it was one event, he stood to gain three and a half billion dollars. If it was two events, he stood to gain seven billion dollars. And one of the reasons that there's still a hole in the ground seven years later in lower Manhattan is that it took lawyers on each side several years to come to an agreement on how many events took place that morning. So a semantic distinction can be worth three and a half billion dollars, it can also impeach a president as in when Clinton – Bill Clinton said 'it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is.' That was cited as one of five articles of impeachment when he was impeached by the House of Representatives.

FUDGE: The question of whether 9/11 was one event or two, was that ever settled by the courts?

PINKER: They didn't decide on a number of events but they did decide on amount in between three and a half billion and seven billion, so it was $4.25 billion, which I guess would be like, I don't know, one and three-eighths events.

FUDGE: Let's go to Kay in UTC. Kay, go ahead.

KAY (Caller, University Towne Center area): Hi. Thanks for coming and speaking to us. I'm familiarizing myself with the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg and his giraffe language. I don't know if you're familiar with it but…

PINKER: No, never heard of giraffe language.

KAY: He goes all around the world and teaches peace to people on what he calls the model for nonviolent communication using observations, feelings, needs and requests. And at first it seemed kind of stilted when I've tried it, but I've seen it like diffuse anger and help people dissolve their need for divorce.

FUDGE: By just changing the language?

KAY: Just by changing their language to a feelings-based language.

FUDGE: A feelings-based language. Can you imagine such a thing, Steven?

PINKER: Usually attempts at reform through language change don't really work. Although, of course, concentrating on what people communicate can be effective if there's a couple, for example, that is not expressing some crucial need or emotional reaction to get people to do that, I imagine this would be common sense, would help in a marriage. Although I don't think changing the language itself matters so much as changing the content of the language and the tone.

FUDGE: Let's take a call from Jennifer in North Park. Jennifer, go ahead, you're on the show.

JENNIFER (Caller, North Park): Good morning.

PINKER: Good morning.

JENNIFER: Thank you so much for taking my call. I wanted to comment about when I lived in Thailand for about a summer and I noticed the difference in language, that they didn't use a lot of qualifiers. They just said uenlau (sp), which means you're fat already, instead of, you know, I've just gained pounds, and that would never be spoken in English. They say you're gaining a little weight, I notice you're getting kind of heavy, and that – there was just no language distinction. And, you know, there are words for 'a little' but you don't use that to describe words such as fat. Basically, they just said you're fat. And I even noticed some people saying that in English when they greeted someone that they haven't seen in a long time, they give them a big hug and say you're fat. And I was just noticing that that's something that would never happen in English.

FUDGE: Is it possible that in Thailand calling somebody fat could be a compliment?

JENNIFER: No.

FUDGE: It's not?

JENNIFER: Some of the girls that I lived with, if they just gained one kilo, which is 2.2 pounds, they would freak out and cry and it would be this really big disaster. So they were very sensitive about their weight.

FUDGE: Huh. Okay. Well, what do you make of that, Steven?

PINKER: That's interesting. I had not heard of that. There's certain – I do talk about politeness and familiarity in the book, and there are…

FUDGE: Why don't we just tell people to pass the butter?

PINKER: Yes, because we don't want to treat them like servants or underlings but we do want the damn butter. And so by saying, 'if you could pass the butter, that would be great,' which, when you think about it, doesn't make a whole lot of sense…

FUDGE: Well, but is this…

PINKER: …right?

FUDGE: …something that we find in all languages? Or is it something that we…

PINKER: The general…

FUDGE: …find in English?

PINKER: The general phenomenon you find in all languages. That is, all languages have some kind – have politeness, have innuendo, have indirectness, although as the caller pointed out, not always in the same circumstances. So there is a kind of slider between cultures as to what's the baseline level of politeness that you expect in a particular kind of interaction, like between two friends. There's a fine line between a kind of intimacy where you can say what you want to someone as a sign of how close you are. We're between friends, we can say that kind of thing. For instance, dissing someone by saying something that's insulting and one of the differences between cultures, not across the board but in particular circumstances, is how much directness close friends tolerate.

FUDGE: And give us a call if you would like at 1-888-895-KPBS. Let's get to talking about profanity which, even though it's a bit of a challenge on a radio station that is regulated by the FCC, why are some words taboo?

PINKER: Yes.

FUDGE: And why does every language seem to have this class of words that we call profanity?

PINKER: Yeah, there's – it is another example of word magic, of imaging that words have terrible powers and that awful things will happen by the mere uttering of a word. When you think about it, what's going to happen if you use the f-word as opposed to some synonym like 'have sex with.' It's a bit mysterious and I think the solution is that taboo words activate primitive emotional circuits in the brain. Sometime you can see this when someone has suffered a stroke to the language areas of the left hemisphere. They will sometimes lose articulate speech but still be able to swear, presumably because the emotion-laden taboo words are stored in a different part, literally stored in a different part of the brain, the right hemisphere, for example, as opposed to the left, which ordinarily handles language. And there's an automatic response to it. When you hear a taboo word, there's a little wave of sweat that goes through your fingers that can actually be measured. And so taboo words evoke this emotional reaction, which we often attribute to them being somehow immoral. Speakers take advantage of this often by sprinkling their language with taboo words to constantly jab their listener to pay attention or to project an image of kind of macho coolness.

FUDGE: Why do taboo words, and I think you say in your book that we find this throughout many languages, why are taboo words always related to sex or excrement or blasphemy?

PINKER: Or also to death and disease and…

FUDGE: Okay.

PINKER: …also to people you don't like, heretics, infidels, enemies, slaves, subordinate peoples. Basically, it's any domain with a strong negative emotion can become the source of a taboo word. And, of course, the exact taboo words and concepts differ from language to language. There are many concepts in which saying the equivalent of – the translation of f-you would be like saying 'have sex.' It just wouldn't have – it doesn't – loses something in translation.

FUDGE: Yeah, no sweat coming from my fingertips when I…

PINKER: Exactly.

FUDGE: …hear that.

PINKER: And – But the common denominator behind taboo words is being tied to some strong negative emotion.

FUDGE: And Steven Pinker is author of "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature." Let's go to Steve in Carlsbad. Steve, you're on the show.

STEVE (Caller, Carlsbad): Hey, guys, interesting topic. I have a couple of quick comments. One is, how has language evolved over time in terms of the quality of the language? I mean, since language is to exchange information, if you're able to exchange information, I mean, the fastest, that would be better – I mean, that seems to be optimal, the faster you can exchange that information. So over time, have we been able to exchange the same information but we're able to do it in a shorter period of time? Or has there, at some point in history, been like an optimal time of language where – and it's kind of gone downhill for the last 500 years or something? And my second question is with the – or comment is with the taboo words, there's a interesting study that was done on secular communes and religious communes and they found that secular communes were four times as likely to break up than religious communes and they also found that the stricter the religious commune, the longer it tended to last. There's an article that came out in Science magazine – or, I'm sorry, not Science, The Economist, a few months ago.

FUDGE: And how does that relate to language?

STEVE: I'll tell you. And that is that taboo words, it's kind of like it's not conforming to the group, it's something that the group does not approve of and so maybe in terms of – it's not conforming and so that it – it's a – Of course, there's no difference between the meaning, in a sense, but it's – it brings out that response that the guest just mentioned about…

FUDGE: Okay.

STEVE: …sweating. And I'm saying it's not conforming, so it's kind of bad for the group as a whole as these studies of the communes have showed.

FUDGE: Okay, well thank you very much, Steve. And so is swearing bad for us?

PINKER: Yes. Well, let me start with the question of whether language has become more and more optimal over time for us…

FUDGE: Oh, you actually…

PINKER: …to find…

FUDGE: …have an answer for that question. I…

PINKER: Yeah.

FUDGE: …I didn't think you would.

PINKER: Yeah, I think – Except for the very earliest stages of a new language, like a creole language that develops in a plantation, for example, but if a language has been around for a few generations, it tends not to move in a particular direction but there's kind of a random walk, a kind of drift, where in some parts of the language the words get shorter. In other parts, they might get longer. Some where constructions disappear, other ones reappear. And the reason is that you can't optimize everything at once, that if you make things easier on the speaker by, say, shortening words or omitting consonants, then you're making things harder on the hearer who has to work harder to figure out what the speaker just said. And if you make things easy for the hearer by spelling everything out, well you add to the workload of the speaker. And for that reason, languages don't move in a particular direction because if they've been around, they're probably not far from some kind of compromise between speakers and hearers and, for that matter, learners because kids also have to figure out how the language works in the first place. And so you get a lot of tweaks and drifting but not movement in a particular direction. In terms of what swearing does for the community, sometimes swearing can be a bonding experience, which is why often groups of men, soldiers, sailors, construction workers, longshoremen, will use frequent swearing, sometimes called the f-patois, because it's an effing this and effing that, as a way of showing that this is the kind of social circle where you don't have to – we don't have to watch what we say. We are defying standards of propriety and, you know, little old ladies and schoolmarms by swearing at will. So it can be a kind of bonding experience. And like on the other side, avoiding certain words, not calling someone a black but calling them African-American is a way of advertising your sensitivity, it's saying I'm not only not a racist but I'm respectful of diversity. I call people by the label they, themselves, have selected. I have – I don't know any details about how that enters into the longevity of communes but I wouldn't be surprised if communes and other fraternal organizations tacitly come to an agreement as to what kind of words you are allowed to use and what kind you aren't, as a body makes…

FUDGE: And those rules are going to be different from one fraternity to the next.

PINKER: Very much, swearing being a good example.

FUDGE: We talked earlier about where do words come from, I think, and who invents words. And there's a very interesting phenomenon and I hope I'm going to say this right: phonesthesia?

PINKER: Exactly.

FUDGE: I said that correctly. And this is where you can look at certain words and say, oh yeah, I know why this word describes that activity.

PINKER: Yes.

FUDGE: And it's very interesting. Tell us what is meant by that.

PINKER: Phonesthesia literally means the feeling in sound. And it's a counterexample to the generalization that the relationship between a word and what it stands for is arbitrary. It's mostly arbitrary but there are some patterns so you have words that sound alike that refer to the same kind of thing. A lot of the words that begin with 'gl', g-l, have to do with the emission of light. Glow, glitter, glisten, glare. A lot of the words that begin with 'juh' have to do with a sudden movement. Jump, jitter, jiggle. And one finds families like that where a little smidgen of sound calls to mind a aspect of meaning, sometimes because the way that you pronounce that bit of sound reminds you in some way of what you're talking about. So there's something a little bit sudden about pronouncing the sound 'juh.' Maybe that reminded someone of a quick movement and so the family then started to grow as people coined new words and the first sound that came to mind was one that was similar to existing words.

FUDGE: Let's go to Lena in Serra Mesa. Lena, go ahead.

LENA (Caller, Serra Mesa): Hi, there. I've noticed that some folks have – they feel, perhaps, that they don't deserve what they're asking for and they feel that they might have to manipulate verbally to get what they're asking for and/or that they're afraid to hear no. So, for example, a kid might say, gee, I wish I had an ice cream. And so instead of just saying it directly and maybe hearing no, sorry, they avoid that by putting it into a wish form. Do you have any comments about that? I'll take them off the air. Thank you.

FUDGE: Thank you.

PINKER: Sure, yes, that's an excellent case of the logic of politeness, namely you really do want to get some request across but you also have a social relationship with the person that you're talking to, and those can sometimes clash. The example of requesting something like the salt or like an ice cream cone is an example because, for one thing, you're in danger of treating the person as some kind of servant or underling. On the other hand, if the person turns them down, you've kind of been dissed. You've put yourself in a position where your wishes can be contravened by someone in power and so you're granting them a lot of power by saying that they can, on their whim, turn you down. By framing it as a hypothetical or as a – you know, if you could pass the salt, that would be great, or as a desire, gee, I sure would like an ice cream cone, you – the listener can read between the lines, if they're so inclined, they can do it. Both sides have an out if they don't, so the nature of the relationship hasn't changed. At the same time, the request and the response to it get through.

FUDGE: So it really is all about our relationships and the way we view the person that we're asking the question to.

PINKER: It's about an inherent contradiction that's built into language, namely every speech act, everything that you say, presupposes some kind of relationship that you have with your hearer. On the other hand, that may not be the relationship that you currently have or the one that you want to have. Another ex – and so ordering someone around, which is what you do when you want the salt, might be incompatible with the social relationship but you really do want the salt. A sexual come on is another example. Would you like to come up and see my etchings? Everyone knows what that means. Why is that more comfortable than do you want to come up and have sex? Because once someone makes a sexual overture, they – whether or not it's accepted, they've permanently changed the nature of the relationship.

FUDGE: Uh-huh, yeah.

PINKER: They say I'm now looking at you as a potential sexual partner. And you can't be ordinary friends and colleagues once that is mutually acknowledged. By framing the come on in this indirect style in terms of etchings then if the woman turns down the overture, the signal has been communicated but at the same time they don't have to acknowledge the nature of their relationship has changed.

FUDGE: Steven Pinker is my guest. He's author of the book "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature." These labels that we call words are interesting. I remember when I was a kid and we talked about the nine planets, I think nine was the number. Pluto was one of them. Well, a couple years back, scientists have told us, no, Pluto, that's not really a planet. So it changed the nature of the thing that we were thinking of but we still called it Pluto. When I was a kid, there was also this dinosaur we called the Brontosaurus and recently scientists have said, no, there really wasn't any Brontosaurus, we were wrong about that, so you have to call it something else. Why couldn't we just keep calling it the Brontosaurus? And I guess my question is, what does the name mean to us? What is – does it describe a specific thing or is it a concept that we've grown up with that can change over time?

PINKER: That taps into one of the most profound debates in twentieth century philosophy. What is meaning? And there are two possible answers, and you've actually brought them up by those terrific examples. One is that a meaning is like a definition. A planet is a heavenly body with the following list of characteristics. The other is that it's like a name. You point to something and you say I hereby dub this object or this person with this name, and it sticks. A lot of the time those two correspond but sometimes they don't. You might discover something about the object, have to change the definition, and then the thing is, what do you do with the name? Now – the old name. Now, ordinarily the name sticks. That is the theory that names are products of acts of dubbing, of christening, works a larger percentage of the time. So, for example, if I were to convince you that William Shakespeare didn't actually write the plays attributed to him, you would still say that the guy born in Stratford was William Shakespeare even if it turned out that all of the information in the dictionary about William Shakespeare turned out to be incorrect. Or if it turned out that the rumor that Paul McCartney died was true and there was really an imposter, you'd still say that McCartney is the guy who was born in Liverpool in 1942. In the case of scientific terminology, though, that's when a wedge is driven between the definition of a term and simply what the term sticks to. And, often, common sense is insulted when a scientist says we no longer can call this animal a Brontosaurus, it's an Apatosaurus. Or, we can no longer call Pluto a planet because we think planet is just the label for those nine heavenly bodies and ordinarily that's the way that labels stick.

FUDGE: Well, Steven Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and he's author of seven books. His latest, which just came out in paperback, is called "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature." And thanks for coming in to talk about your book.

PINKER: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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