Psychologist Steven Pinker discusses the quirks of English

Pinker is interested in learning why the English language has inefficient idiosyncrasies.
Pinker is interested in learning why the English language has inefficient idiosyncrasies. Photo by Hyung Mee Lim.

It was like a scene from the Yale viewbook: dozens of eager students crowding a Master’s Tea on the subject of human nature, psychology and the science that connects it all.

Thursday afternoon, internationally known psychologist Steven Pinker, who is also the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard, delivered a Master’s Tea about linguistics and the human mind in Berkeley College. A horde of fans had already gathered in front of the Berkeley Master’s House well before the talk slated to begin at 3:30 p.m. Among the throng of visitors was even a man who wanted to get a strand of Pinker’s iconic curly gray locks to sell on eBay.

Pinker is known for writing “The Stuff of Thought,” “How the Mind Works” and “Blank Slate.”
Pinker is known for writing “The Stuff of Thought,” “How the Mind Works” and “Blank Slate.”

Accompanied by Berkeley Master Marvin Chun, Pinker made his way through the crowd and sat down in a beige armchair, crossing his legs to reveal black leather cowboy boots under his suit pants.

“This is not a typical tea in a living room,” Pinker said, referring to the tight living room packed with more than 70 students and faculty.

He started the talk discussing idiosyncrasies in the English language — such as the irregular conjugation of the verbs “to bring” and “to choose” — which he related to the inner workings of the human mind. During the latter portion of the talk, he explained his broader interests, which include studying the social aspects of languages through innuendos.

Indeed, irregular verbs have been a focal point in Pinker’s research. In the talk, he described the human child as a “grammatical productive, creative, rule-using creature,” referring to the mistakes that children make during the process of language development and acquisition.

Pinker also mentioned intransitive and transitive verbs, singling out the verb “to load,” which has both intransitive and transitive qualities, allowing one to construe the same situation in one way or the other.

What Pinker is specifically interested in, he said, is why the English language has such idiosyncrasies, without which language could be more efficient, logical, and well, “less crazy.” In answering this question, he said he has come to a discovery of the substrate of the human mind, which reveals an elementary cognitive vocabulary, or what Pinker calls the “stuff of thought.” These findings form the core of his book, “The Stuff of Thought,” which explores questions of causation, agency, means versus ends, instants and events — in other words, basic conceptual elements that govern language and complicate it.

He also mentioned a more social and emotional interest, and delved into the topics of innuendos. Here, the talk veered off the academic track at points, including one instance in which Pinker began explaining the plot of a Seinfeld episode.

The episode in question involved a scene with the socially obtuse character George, who repeatedly refuses a woman’s invitation to retire to her apartment for coffee late one evening. Later in the episode, George comes to an epiphany, exclaiming, “Coffee doesn’t mean coffee — it means sex!” Pinker used the example to explain how humans engage in a lot of indirect speech in order to convey messages without necessarily jeopardizing the status quo of relationships.

He was also a proponent of the selective use of passive verbs, noting evidence of burden on short-term memory in certain embedded sentence structures as evidence to not take the advice of Strunk and White so literally.

“English majors should think about linguistics and psychology,” said Erica Pool ’12, an audience member at the talk. She also described Pinker as “friendly” and a “good speaker.”

In introducing Pinker, Berkeley Master and psychology professor Marvin Chun said Pinker is known for both his “eloquent writing” and his “riveting YouTube videos.” Chun added that Pinker was also listed among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2004.