The Floating University

Say What? 

Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain.

STEVEN PINKER, Psychologist, Cognitive Scientist, Linguist, Johnstone Family Professor, HC Professor, Harvard University    

Lesson Overview

Diagramming sentences in junior high is a tedious process, so at first glance studying the particulars of language in-depth might not seem so exciting. But in "Say What? Linguistics as a Window to the Understanding Brain", Professor Steven Pinker illustrates how the study of linguistics can give us a rare window into the conscious mind. Identifying as more of a cognitive scientist than a linguist, Pinker decodes this most unique of human traits that allows us to store knowledge and coordinate our actions, creating the potential for unlimited creativity. 

How is it that human beings have come to acquire language? Pinker's introduction to the field includes thoughts on the evolution of spoken language and the debate over the existence of an innate universal grammar, as well as an exploration of why language is such a fundamental part of social relationships, human biology, and human evolution.

He discusses questions both immediate and theoretical, from why computers struggle to understand language and why we're willing to choke to death in exchange for the use of language, to how you can construct the longest sentence in the world. Language is broken down to its components -- grammar and speech -- highlighting the work of Noam Chomsky, the godfather of linguistics. Finally, Pinker touches on the wide variety of applications for linguistics, from improving how we teach reading and writing to the interpretation of law, politics, and literature. 


  • Course Pack: Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperCollins.1994/2007. (Chapters 1, 2 & 4)

Discussion Questions

(1.) Apple has had popular success lately with its Siri speech recognition program on the iPhone. A peek under the hood, however, shows that Siri doesn't "process" speech, so much as it uses a giant statistical database to match sound patterns to words and then assign the most likely transcription or answer, based on past results. Does this constitute true speech recognition, or is this just a more robust version of old-time AOL chat bots? If this is the way that speech recognition technology will evolve in the future, do you think that it will cross a database threshold so as to be indistinguishable from true speech recognition, even if there’s no pragmatic “ghost in the machine,” as it were? Or will computers never be able to truly "learn" language? 

(2.) Do you believe that people are born hard-wired with a universal grammar? In your personal experience, do you think primarily in linguistic schema, as is posited by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?  If you speak, or are learning a second language, how has this altered you perspective on the nature of language and language acquisition? Language is not thought, but we are capable of thinking in linguistic terms, and it is common for speakers of a second language to claim that they 'think' in their birth tongue. And, of course, there's the realm of dreams, in which we don't control language interfaces. Has learning a second language affected your non-voluntary linguistic interactions in dreams?  

(3.) How might we communicate with an alien species that shares no linguistic commonalities with the human race? Would true conversation ever be possible? How would a meeting between a human and a Martian test the notion of universal grammar? How do you think a human infant would linguistically adapt if raised from birth in a Martian family? Would that child ever be able to learn a human language as an adult? 

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About Steven Pinker

Dr. Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology who specializes in visual cognition psycholinguistics. He is best known for his theory of language acquisition and his pioneering work on language and cognition. Dr. Pinker's research in cognitive science has earned him numerous awards. He was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential scientists and thinkers in the world in 2004. In 2005, Forbes and Foreign Policy both included him on the list of the 100 top public intellectuals. He is the author of seven books, the most popular of which include How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate. Dr. Pinker taught at MIT for over twenty years before accepting his position as the Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University in 2008.