Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought and the Need for a Linguistics PR Team

I could spend this article picking apart or promoting Pinker’s Conceptual Semantics, but what’s the point? There’s not enough room in a blog post to do either. So instead I’d like to devote this post to how much the field of linguistics needs a PR team.

The gap between linguists and the public is no more evident than in the crap people believe about language despite the truth linguistics has to offer them. More often than not, the public’s belief and the linguistic fact are polar opposites. They are so far apart that it inspired me to invent McVeigh’s Law, which states that the probability of an answer or explanation being true is directly proportional to how boring it is. This means that the most boring answer or explanation is usually the correct one (compare the etymology of fuck to what you probably heard about the king and his consent).

Fortunately, other more capable and respected people in the linguistics field have also noticed the need for a Linguistics PR team. Language Log has been fighting the good fight for a while now, as have Language Hat and Stan Carey. But last week saw the introduction of Popular Linguistics Magazine, which aims to do for linguistics what Scientific American has done for physics. Here’s hoping.

There is, of course, danger in getting the public very much involved with an academic field. It’s not that the public is dangerous to academia, it’s just that their general knowledge tends to muddy the scientific waters. For all the zeal and interest people may have in a particular academic field, there’s a point where they go from member of the public to professional in the field. The crossover usually requires a degree, which is all fine and good, but the Internet poses and interesting dilemma. With the ability of anyone to write anything about anything, professionals that attempt to educate the public in their field may find themselves with a new-found appreciation for Dr. Frankenstein (autism, anyone?).

I bring this up because there are competing theories in linguistics, theories that aim to explain the most basic principles of language. Scientific American may have been able to bring physics to the people, but physics come pre-packaged with an organized set of basic equations and principles. There may be debate on topics such as astrophysics, but no one is calling into question the equation that explains gravity. Linguists, on the other hand, can’t even agree on the purpose of language, let alone how or why it developed. <

Before I get too far down the rabbit hole of science I don’t understand, I'll bring it back to Pinker because The Stuff of Thought is his attempt to explain the very nature of language and how it offers us a window into the human mind. It’s a noble goal and it places Pinker in the class of hip authors, who are trying to bring science to the masses. Fortunately, he isn’t a journalist tying a bunch of common sense ideas together and calling it revelatory. No, Pinker at least knows his stuff (even if his writing style is poor).

And if there is one thing that is good about Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, it’s that it pulls linguistics away from philosophy and toward science. Linguistics has only recently undergone the change from armchair philosophic theories to actual, provable, and evidence based theories. The debate among linguists about the basic nature of language may always be a very philosophical debate, but Pinker aims to back up his theory with scientific research, unlike some linguists who develop explanations for language that by their very nature can never be proved and therefore allow the linguists to never be backed in a corner. They can just deny, deny, deny.

I enjoy the shift linguistics is making away from philosophy and abstractions. I imagine that if this trend continues, Pinker’s book will be viewed positively, even if his theories are later proven wrong because it was a step in the right direction. I think the first step for the Linguistics PR team should be to explain the basic debates surrounding the major theoretic fields, as well as to squash the old wives etymology tales (Best way to do that? Make everyone aware of McVeigh’s Law). Keep it simple, people. If the PR team is able to do that, I think they really can bring linguistics to the people in the way that Scientific American brought physics to the masses. Here’s hoping.

Up next: City of Thieves by David Benioff

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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