Beyond Words - Language Blog

7 Questions to a Linguist: Steven Pinker Doesn’t Speak Motherese

In the latest entry of 7 Questions to a Linguist, ALTA Language Services caught up with psycholinguistics wunderkind Dr. Steven Pinker. The Harvard psychology professor, frequent TED speaker, and award-winning author staked his claim in contemporary discourse thanks to his user-friendly application of cognitive linguistics to society’s big questions.

As far as public intellectuals go, Pinker has never been one to shy away from a healthy dose of debate. His 2014 book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, which comes out on paperback today, already engendered something of a linguists’ spat with The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller late last year. Fortunately, a riled-up language community was quick to set the record straight, and we can turn our attention to the broader questions at hand.


1. Which areas of research compel you most today? And are they the same ones that captured your attention at the start of your career?

I’m engaged with the psychology of good writing – how our knowledge of how the mind works, and how language works, can lead to better advice on how to write clear and stylish prose. Most style advice is scolding in tone and based on superstitions about language rather than scientific understanding.

2. Which technologies do you believe are having the most profound effect on how we communicate today?

Though I’m obsessed with words, language is just one medium of communication, and not the best for every purpose, particularly in an era in which big data gets bigger every year and is becoming indispensable to an understanding of the human condition. New technologies of data graphics, using motion, color, the third dimension, interactivity, and new formats (beyond the bar graph and pie chart) are going to become essential forms of communication. My previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, showed that contrary to what you might believe from the headlines, all forms of violence are in historical decline. I could not have made that argument without graphs.

3. What is the best career advice you’ve received?

When I made the transition from just academic books and articles to writing for a more general audience, an editor at a university press told me that in her experience most academics fail at this crossover because they underestimate the intelligence of their readers and write in motherese. She told me that a good writer assumes that his readers are as intellectually sophisticated as he is but just doesn’t know some of the things that he does. She said to imagine that I was writing for a college friend who went into a different career like law or medicine, and just hadn’t been exposed to my professional training.

I followed this advice, and when I wrote The Sense of Style I discovered that a major component of “classic style” (the style of the best nonfiction writers) is that they treat their readers as equals in a conversation and pretend that they’re pointing to something in the world that the reader has not yet noticed.

4. Broadly speaking, what do you hope to achieve with your work?

I hope to awaken people to the complexity and wonder of human nature – the suite of emotions, drives, and cognitive powers (including language) that makes us what we are and governs how we live our lives.

5. Which of your professional achievements would you like to see have the most lasting impact on the field of linguistics?

My analysis of what language reveals about the human concepts of space, time, matter, and causation in my technical book Learnability and Cognition (some of it presented in a less technical way in The Stuff of Thought).

6. Are there any uncomfortable or off-putting truths that you have uncovered in the process of researching and writing about language?

The Stuff of Thought contains a chapter on swearing, which revealed that verbs for the act of love tend to be extended metaphorically to refer to damage (screwed up) and exploitation (we got screwed). And it turns out that all the transitive verbs for sex (John verbed Mary) are either obscene or jocular. This suggests that English speakers have a mental model of sex in which a man does something directly to a woman which exploits and damages her – but that this model is not to be acknowledged in polite company.

7. The Oxford comma: yea or nay?

Yea!

Interview has been edited and condensed.


Interview conducted by Maria Khodorkovsky. Maria covers research at the intersection of language, psychology, and society for ALTA Language Services. Her work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curbed, and on the websites of the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament and the National Museum of Language. Maria studied Russian Translation at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Photograph: © Rose Lincoln