Running thought and experience.The introductory chapter in the book,

Running Head: Limitless Language for the Limitless World 1Limitless Language for the Limitless WorldA Book Review on Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought2014-29285University of the Philippines Diliman, Quezon CityIn partial fulfilment of the coursePsychology 145: Psychology of LanguageLimitless Language for the Limitless World 2The significance of language is our daily situations may be thought of as ordinary. Theentity exists, and we are aware of how it is evident and necessary in almost every facet ofhuman life, but nevertheless, hardly does anyone think about it beyond what it provides them.The book goes into the basic mechanisms of language that come into play when relating it tohuman thought and experience.The introductory chapter in the book, there is a discussion in the point of how words arerelated to first, thoughts in our heads that relate to the word in question. Words relate to reality,in the sense that they are not only based on the what the speaker believes to be true, but arealso attached to the underlying mechanisms of the world. Words exist in a community by meansof words that are used by increasing numbers of people that interact with each other, until itbecomes part of the dialogue of the entire community. Words also have the power to bringabout particular feelings and emotions with it, eliciting a variety of reactions. Lastly, words arethe driving force to facilitate communication among social beings, allowing them to createrelations.The author explores the mechanisms when children acquire language. Babies enter theworld without any prior knowledge of language, but their brains are able to extract usefulinformation from the world around them, and eventually apply it themselves. The author alsolooks into how language is able to represent “time, causality, and substance”. These are seldomgiven attention to, and human beings often think of concrete entities; This emphasizes the roleof nouns in the human language. Nevertheless, space, time, causality are integral tocommunication among individuals.One facet that displays the role of human beings in the evolution of language is hownames come to be. Whether they be names of people, that parents have the authority over, ornames of words that embody a meaning known and used by the general population. As statedearlier, words that start of being used by a small number of individuals but are eventuallyLimitless Language for the Limitless World 3incorporated and applied by more and more people are those that are imprinted and acceptedby society to be common knowledge.Metaphors, one figure of speech, enables individuals to look beyond the surface andunlock underlying messages from what is immediately seen. These meanings have a commonunderstanding between the speaker and audience, communicating messages that requireindividuals to really display the power of the human mind. In relation to this, he also discussesIndirect Speech, and how its underlying meaning is protected by the literal meaning for thereasons of saving “face”, being polite, and establishing particular relationships between thoseinvolved in the dialogue.Despite people’s right to the freedom of speech, society imposes standards that make itsocially unacceptable for specific topics and words to be discussed openly. These may beconsidered obscene or taboo, giving it somewhat of a controversial nature. Language is alsoseen as a tool in which people are able to comprehend and explore human nature. It becomesindispensable as we gain further knowledge and venture out of the “cave” as we push theboundaries and come to know the world beyond what we thought was possible.Critical AnalysisThe arguments and theories in Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought have found connections inreal life experiences, and even in other materials that discuss the Psychology of Language. Thebook explores a variety of arguments that stir up thought and the motivations for the innerworkings of the mind to come to life and operate.Among the arguments that stood out are (1) the Cathartic Power of Swearing, (2) theFunction of Indirect Speech in following the lines of Politeness, (3) Fodor’s claim that languageis innate, as well as Pinker’s rebuttal of his arguments, (4) Linguistic Determinism and Pinker’sopposition to this, and (5) the Messianic Theory of Metaphors. Each one will be discussedLimitless Language for the Limitless World 4according to how Pinker depicts it, along with other research or class discussions that eithersupplement it or diagree with it.The freedom of speech has enabled individuals to speak their minds and expressthemselves in ways they feel necessary. However, society has still imposed standards andunspoken boundaries as to how far these expressions can go. Some topics may be labelled’taboo’ as universally unaccepted, whereas some are specific to particular cultures and groupsof people. The act of Cursing, which was discussed in Pinker’s book, is considered profane,especially to the younger audience. However, critics also say that the act of swearing servesbecomes useful in particular instances.There is a mentioned power in the language of cursing has a cathartic effect. Like thehydraulic model, The person then acts much like an object that needs to release steam, and thisis accomplished through cursing. This Frustration-Aggression theory that is present in Pinker’sbook, relating to linguitic means, is also a concept that is used in Social Psychology, in the wayan individual reacts to Aggression. According to the theory, once the individual experiencesFrustration, there is a need to release that Frustration, either through Aggression or otheradditional responses like Withdrawal. Aggression then, in turn, can be expressed Externally orInternally (ex. Suicide), and External Aggression can be either directed to the source ofFrustration or Displaced to another, safer target (Myers, 2011).However, not discarding that the release of frustration through aggression in thisCathartic perspective may provide some relief, research shows that releasing these frustrationsmay feed the feelings even more, much like fueling the fire. In a study found in Meyer’s SocialPsychology, they demonstrated particular studies that exemlified this theory. One of theseexperiments is found in the passage below:In laboratory tests of catharsis, Brad Bushman (2002) invitedangered participants to hit a punching bag while either ruminatingabout the person who angered them or thinking about becomingphysically fit. A third group did not hit the punching bag. When given achance to administer loud blasts of noise to the person who angeredLimitless Language for the Limitless World 5them, people in the punching bag plus rumination condition felt angrierand were most aggressive. Moreover, doing nothing at all moreeffectively reduced aggression than did “blowing off steam” by hittingthe bag.” (Myers, 2011).As evident by the results of the study, the results of Aggression out of Frustration may notnecessarily be cathartic. Swearing, as proposed by Pinker as a form of releasing or getting rid ofthe frustration (cathartic), may lead to even more pent up anger and intensified emotions.Because cursing is so prevalent in everyday situations- in personal emotions, in massmedia and advertisements, in interactions among peers, or even hearing it as a third partyobserver, this act has become rooted in the speech of individuals, specific to their culture andlanguage. This exemplifies how the hypothesis of cursing as a cathartic model makes sense. Itis not farfetched to assume that after some time, it comes so naturally to the individualsspeaking (similar to a form of desensitization), and that they would eventually react almosthabitually to these events that cause these emotions.I have observed friends of mine, while angry, vent their frustrations (along with manycurse words that for the sake of formality, I will not repeat here). However, their venting almostalways result in them becoming even more angry or shifting to extreme sadness, rage, or othernegative emotions. For this reason, I do believe that cursing has some cathartic power, probablybeing habitual to humans as a means of expressing and releasing. However, I believe thisserves a temporary purpose, as seen in real life experiences and research studies that thiseventually feeds the emotion.Another argument that Pinker provides are those of Indirect Speech Acts as a means tosave face. As human beings interact, there is this unspoken goal of saving one’s own ‘face'(speaker), as well as that of the listener. This face can be exemplified as either a Positive Face,one that gains approval of the other parties involved, and that of the Negative Face, one thatdesires to be autonomous or independent of any command. This desire to save face is muchLimitless Language for the Limitless World 6like walking around eggshells, exemplified in how one person verbalizes something with anintended meaning, shielded by a literal surface meaning.For example, one may say “There isn’t any salt here.” as one of the forms of making arequest, or “Can you pass the salt?” Both statements do not ask for the literal interpretation fromthe listener. Considering the latter, one does not a sarcastic answer of “Yes, I can.” withouttaking any course of action. Although, by phrasing the request in this way, it recognizes theautonomy of the listener, giving him or her the power to choose independently what course ofaction to take, without imposing force to comply.Much like Metaphors, and similar to a lesson we have learned in class indirect speechacts convey an underlying meaning that is understood by both parties, since the listener will notperceive the sentence in its the literal meaning, much like how the speaker does not expect thelistener to perceive it in its literal meaning (Carroll, 2008). I assume that when Pinker assumedabout Indirect Requests being utilized to ‘save face’, he did not look at it in the Filipinoperspective, but reading about it and relating it to Filipino culture, it is also applicable.It is evident in Sikolohiyang Pilipino, specifically in the usage of the concept of Hiya inthe sense of being placed in an awkward or embarrassing situation (Pe Pua, 2000). Personally,I see this in how Filipinos are careful not to step on others’ feelings. There is great sensitivitywhen interacting and conversing with others around us. Often we hear “Sorry ha, pero paki-abotyung lapis.” It is evident that the speaker is not really apologetic, but because she is in theposition of asking for a favor, she puts herself in that position that doesn’t put the listener in aposition that forces him or her to comply. Compared to “Kunin mo yung lapis”, the first statementis what people use when asking for a favor so as not to cause any feelings of offense orawkwardness.Another notable contribution to language is the concept of Extreme Nativism, whichproposes that upon emerging into this world, human beings are already given an inventory ofbasic and abstract contexts that are available for them to use. Fodor states that “If a unit cannotLimitless Language for the Limitless World 7be further broken down, then it is innate.” Therefore, according to him, since concepts areindefinable, innate entities serve as the basic units of foundation. Pinker, on the other hand,provides hypotheses that words can, indeed, be composed of smaller conceptual particles(using Alternations for verbs). He also argues that Fodor’s claim to human beings beingequipped with 50, 000 concepts is a claim that requires evidence, evidence that Fodor wasunable to provide.Fodor proposes additional arguments to support his hypothesis, among these are thatboth simple and complex concepts possess the same level of difficulty in comprehension. Heproposes that multiple-word morphemes, over time, can morph into single-word morphemes(which are now innate). However, Pinker suggests another reason for the ease of processing ofboth concepts: that the mind is able to chunk large bits of information (complex concepts), so asto be processed more efficiently. Also, there are limits to the mind’s cognitive power, asextremely large pieces of information fail to be processed at all.As Fodor presents an argument, such as: definitions are not sufficient to give the wholeidentity of the word being defined, Pinker counters by stating that the dictionary definition of theword, which Fodor may be referring to, is not equivalent in a semantic representation thatdisplays a person’s knowledge about the word, organized in a semantic structure. These aretwo different entities that Fodor fails to delineate.Fodor’s argument is similar to the lessons in class that discussed Chomsky’s similarsentiments of language being innate, discounting the theory of behaviorists that language issolely shaped by the environment and concepts such as rewards and punishments. He becameof the more influential proponents of the mental processes involved in language, “Therefore,although parents may assist the child’s language development in some ways and influence therate of development somewhat, the pattern of development is based not on parental speech buton innate language knowledge.” (Carroll, 2008).Limitless Language for the Limitless World 8The argument of Language being innate vs. learned has been a controversial and longstanding debate. Like Pinker, I do not completely agree with Fodor; Although I do believe thatLanguage has some biological and innate component to it, that we are born with some facultiesthat set the stage for how we are to develop, I do not discount the role of the environment andexperience to help influence our abilities of perception and production. I believe the combinedefforts of innate and environmental mechanisms contributing to language exemplify that no soleguiding force is responsible for the acquisition and development of the complexity language.With regards to another argument Pinker counters, Linguistic Determinism will bediscussed. It mentions the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in that Language determines CognitiveProcesses or how human beings think in particular domains, and how Pinker providesarguments that try to discount this notion. Upon reflecting on the counterarguments of Pinker,the counterarguments proposed are untested theories that attempt to debunk the Sapir-WhorfHypothesis.The arguments discussed in class and in Carroll’s Pscyhology of Language that supportthe Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis provide a plethora of scientific research and studies that support theweak argument of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. A study conducted analyzes and compareschildren that are brought up speaking English and those brought up speaking Chinese. In thesetwo languages, numbers are named in different ways; Chinese having a more regular system(unit name preceded by the decade name), while English having a more complex system withthe numbers 11-19 falling out of the convention. Researchers state that they found thatChinese-speaking children not only acquring these names with a higher accuracy compared totheir English counterparts, but they also achieve better in the area of mathematics. Thiscorrelation supports how these two different languages, with two different naming systems inthis particular aspect, influence different cognitive processes relating to that aspect.However, Pinker discusses counterarguments that respond to the supporting evidenceof the Lingistic Determinism Theory. In his The Stuff of Thought, he mentioned instancesLimitless Language for the Limitless World 9wherein individuals that could not speak or understand sentences, those with deficits in the lefthemisphere of their brain (language), were able to perform mathemtical functions. Pinker thenuses this line of evidence to support his hypothesis that language is not related or precedesthinking.In my personal reflection, I understand where Pinker is coming from. From previousstudies and theories, there has been an established link between thought and speech. Despitethe existing and evudent link, at first glance, it is almost a reach to assume that languageprecedes (influences) thought and cognitive processes. On one hand, the evidence provided,emperical data seems to support the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, since there is basis for the claim.The results provide a foundation for which the Hypothesis can stand on, actually seeing therelationship of the proposed theory.On the other hand, data and evidence provided does not exemplify a undoubtful causeeffect relationship. These show that there is a correlation, but correlations are subject to a thirdvariable, or even a possible inverse relationship in which the proposed cause may actually bethe result. It would be unmethodological to accept the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis wholeheartedly,but it would also be unwise to disregard the significance of the results in trying to comprehendand support the hypothesis. It may not provide an absolute verification that the Hypothesis istrue, but it has given interesting evidence that establish a relationship between the two in thefaulties of the human speech and mind.With regards to the concept of Metaphors. Metaphors have proven to be evident andsignificant in the course of human history, noting that humans, once exposed to this form ofindirect speech, realize that there is some underlying meaning to what they encounter, as theydo not emphasize or prioritize the literal meaning. In the book, Pinker suggests two differenttheories regarding metaphors: the Killjoy Theory and the Messianic Theory. The first assumesthat metaphors supplement knowledge about a particular concept, until after some time, itbecomes incorporated into the meaning of the concept and becomes a ‘dead metaphor’. On theLimitless Language for the Limitless World10other hand, the latter theory proposes that metaphors are merely representations or ‘allusions’to concrete experiences and scenarios, and humans are wired to think literally. Through theMessianic Theory, based on our experiences, we are able to use metaphors in thinking.Lakoff supports the Messianic Theory in that through of our concrete interaction with andin the (non-metaphorical) physical world, we are able to produce and further represent humanexperiences in terms of metaphors. They become more relevant and rooted in our minds,providing a stable basis for the metaphors we continually use today. Reading about this, Iremember something that I encountered in the lecture book, “Ortony (1975) has suggested thatmetaphors are often used to communicate continuous experiential information, especiallyinformation that is otherwise difficult or impossible to express.” This implies that our experiencesproduce concepts, and simple definitions and literal meanings may fail to encapsulate theentirety of it. Therefore, not only do metaphors have the ability to find its basis in the humanexperience, it also supplements language in the expression of it. It becomes an integral tool thatpeople turn to, especially when the literality of words fail.In everyday life, we may come across people at a loss for words, overrun by theiremotions. I would see hear from my peers, and recall myself, unable to express in words theoverwhelming experience that was just encountered. I believe that when words fail, metaphorsspeak. It is so often used in advertisements, music and film media, and even in ordinarysituations to convey messages that probe a deeper understanding and meaning compared towhat may be provided by the otherwise limited literary meaning of the same experience. Advicemay be given to say “Write what you feel”, but its impact is more deeply felt if one says “Fill yourpaper with the breathings of your heart” (William Wordsworth). Therefore someone writing atthis very moment may be more in touch with the human experience of writing after hearing that.After fully grasping the concept of what it means to write, he/she may produce an output thatsupasses ‘just writing’, but may experience and communicate the feelings and emotions thatcome with it.Limitless Language for the Limitless World11ConclusionOverall, the book has provided numerous arguments that have relations in other readingmaterial and discussions. Pinker is able to discuss numerous forms of language, things thathuman beings do not normally analyze or think about on a daily basis. Because of how hededicated his life to the study of the Linguistic Science, he was able to uncover workings of theHuman Language that he is now able to discuss to his audience through the book.Pinker delves in by discussing the mechanisms of each of these phenomenon inlanguage, providing fresh perspectives and theories to ordinary situations that push individualsto think about language with a more curious and explorative mindset. The author also providesexamples that bring life and a relational component to the aforementioned notable facets of thehuman language.In general, the book proved to be a little challenging for the readers that are notaccustomed to the study of Linguistics, but those that have a minimal background may grow toappreciate the topics. Despite the times that the author has the tendency to be technical orexpand his flow of thought that requires the readers to put in more conscious effort in trying tocomprehend the flow of thought of Pinker.However, it is evident that with the countless theories that have various supportingresearch, as well as those that directly counter it, that language is not an absolute science thatcan dictate anything for sure. Because language is dynamic in the changing fortunes of time, itcannot be said for sure what truths language will hold. The world and human thought prove tobe limitless and ever-changing, therefore the language that human beings use in their dailyactivities, connsequently is affected by this. However, the increasing number of studies thatexplore its different tenents and themes become more significant as it increases the currentknowledge. Linguists and Psychologists play a crucial role in this, as well as those that are ableto understand and be aware of language that transcends its surface knowledge.Limitless Language for the Limitless World12References:Carroll, D. W. (2008). Psychology of Language 5-ed. California: Thomson Wadsworth.Myers, D. G. (2011). Social psychology 11-ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.Pe-Pua, R. & Protacio-Marcelino, E. (2000). Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino Psychology): ALegacy of Virgilio G. Enriquez. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 49-71. Retrievedfrom,%20Rogelia/PePua_Marcelino_2000.pdf  


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