Author and researcher Steven Pinker


Pinker puzzles over Maple Leafs

ELLYN KERR | Why do the "Maple Leafs" play hockey for Toronto instead of the "Maple Leaves"? Why do artists paint "still lifes" and not "still lives"?

These are among the idiosyncrasies of the English language that Steven Pinker addressed before an overflow crowd in the Palmer-Howard auditorium last Friday. Pinker is a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the best-selling author of How the Mind Works and The Language Instinct. His talk, entitled "Words and Rules," was an engaging look at how and why we speak the way we do.

Language, Pinker said, is extremely powerful, allowing humans to express anything from the concrete to the abstract. He said this power stems from two features of language -- words and grammar.

Words -- that is, combinations of letters -- denote a particular set of sounds that signifies a particular thing. The word "duck," Pinker said, "doesn't look like a duck, or walk like a duck," yet it conjures in our minds the image of a feathered, quacking creature. Grammar is a system that allows these words to be combined in an infinite number of ways, to meaningfully express anything we wish.

As proof of language's infinity, Pinker cited the Guinness Book of World Records' longest sentence, a contiguous group of 1,300 words by William Faulkner that begins, "They bore it as though..."

"Simply add 'Faulkner wrote...' to the beginning of that," said Pinker. "And then, 'Pinker said that Faulkner wrote...' and then, 'Who cares that Pinker said that Faulkner wrote...' and so on, and you've got increasingly longer sentences."

Given the 60,000-word lexicon of the average high school graduate, and an infinite number of combinations of words, how can the human brain both generate and understand all possible verbal expressions?

Memory, stated Pinker, is of course involved, allowing us to build our vocabulary from childhood until it comprises those tens of thousands of words. Memory permits the proper usage of such irregular word forms as "thought" instead of "thinked," but "blinked" and not "blought."

But strict memorization of all these words, he argued, is not enough to explain how the brain functions linguistically. A battery of rules is also retained to form inflections, or alterations, of words to make them grammatically correct. Common examples of inflections are the addition of "-s" to pluralize, or "-ed" to form the past tense.

"If a word can provide its own [inflection] from memory, then the regular rule is blocked," said Pinker. In other words, the mind will generally default to a rule-dictated word formation (e.g., incorrectly "mouses" or "thinked") unless memory dictates otherwise (so "mice" and "thought").

Pinker gave an example of inviting Julia Child and her family to dinner. "We'd say we were inviting the Childs over, not the Children," he said. How does the brain handle such exceptions? A simplified version of Pinker's thesis is that the brain applies the "kind of" rule in the case of irregular words.

Julia Child is not "a kind of a child," thus the word "child" in her name is not pluralized as it would regularly be. Similarly, the Toronto Maple Leafs are not in fact "kinds of leaves."

So why is it "rat-infested places" and not "rats-infested," while "mice-infested" is correct? Why Sony Walkmans, not Walkmen? Because, Pinker argues, the brain will handle irregular words according to how it would handle the roots of those words.

We don't need to memorize the plural of "rat" because, as a regular word, it simply takes an additional "-s" to become plural. The root that is retained in memory is the singular, "rat." When we need the plural, we invoke the rule of adding "s." Thus we say "rat-infested." As an irregular inflection, however, the plural "mice" must be stored in memory, so derived words retain the "mice" component.

Pinker is the third John Macnamara Memorial speaker in this lecture series funded by private donations and organized by the Department of Psychology.

Psychology professor Albert Bregman introduced the talk by noting that Pinker is a former undergraduate student of his. Being presented by a one-time professor may have impelled Pinker to give a good performance -- a charismatic speaker, he had the audience laughing on several occasions.

"There's a special energy when I'm speaking to audiences here at McGill," said Pinker. Smiling, he added, "Presumably it's because some part of me still thinks I'm being graded."