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


The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

The main character gives up his life completely to travel Finland with an injured hare in his pocket. And somehow he’s the sanest character in the book.
Continue reading The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna”

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

The main character gives up his life completely to travel Finland with an injured hare in his pocket. And somehow he’s the sanest character in the book.

I have to hand it to Paasilinna. He has taken the old picaresque story and made it interesting with this book. You don’t often see that done anymore.
But here it is. Vatanen, our main character, decides to leave his life behind after his coworker hits a hare with their car. This may sound crazy, but Vatanen isn’t exactly leaving much behind – a loveless marriage, a job he has come to despise, and no friends.
A story like this in the hands of another writer would seem ludicrous at best and amateur at worst. But Paasilinna’s wit is here to save the day. When Vatanen’s wife calls him crying because he ruined her life (not because he was leaving, mind you), he tells her, “Cry quicker, or the call’ll get too expensive.”
Yes, if you’re going to read a Huck Finn-like story, you might as well read one by a writer with a dark wit. Paasilinna’s humor takes a bit to kick in, but when it does, it hits right in the teeth. The chapter where Vatanen and his hare meet the priest is brilliant.

But The Year of the Hare is not all fun and games. Some of the most poignant scenes in the book come when Paasilinna doesn’t give the reader what they want, like when Vatanen goes up against the vacationing drunks in the cabin next door. At first the outcome was disappointing, but the more I thought about it, the more it showed Paasilinna’s guts as a writer. It was this scene that turned The Year of the Hare from a good read into a great read.
As a side note, the translation I had could have been better. It didn’t ruin the book, but it was noticeably lacking in some parts. I mean, who knows or uses words like “nous” and “baborborygmi”?
Next up: The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

Photo courtesy of Alexander Parsonage.

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Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

The Oxford English Dictionary spans twenty volumes. It weighs 150 pounds. It is the be all and end all of English dictionaries. But it is more than that to Ammon Shea. It is the greatest version of Shea’s favorite book.
Continue reading Reading the OED by Ammon Shea”

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

I have a tough time reviewing short story books. The stories are rarely connected to one another and the best you usually get is a theme shared by all. Such is the case with Fragile Things, a collection of Gaiman’s gothic tales (yes, there are other kinds). Unlike most short story collections, however, Fragile Things has two strikes against it before readers even pick it up.

Most people know of Neil Gaiman through The Sandman, his graphic novel series. The Sandman was one of the first popular graphic novels, mainly because the story was so good. But so was the artwork, and there’s the rub. Fragile Things comes with no artwork. For someone used to having the visuals provided with a Gaiman story, this could be problem.

It is not.

Although I feel that all short stories should come with illustrations, Fragile Things, is simply great stories written by a great writer. Add to that the gothic theme and you have something very special because Gaiman is especially good at writing dark fiction. He proved this with The Sandman.

What makes or breaks it for me, though, is how I knew that each story was well written. I didn’t like every story, but no one will enjoy every story in a collection. I knew, however, that the stories I didn’t would appeal to others. Basically, Gaiman’s writing abilities are on full display.

And speaking of the stories, here’s a list of the ones I enjoyed and why I enjoyed them.
The Mapmaker – A nice little story hidden away in the introduction.

The Flints of Memory Lane – This is the perfect ghost story because it doesn’t cost the reader anything. They don’t have to believe in the supernatural forces or objects. All they have to know is that something very unusual happened and it scared someone very much. These are the best ghost stories because they are the most likely to happen to you. Bonus: This one is true.

Bitter Grounds – I hate to call this a zombie story because most zombie stories suck. So I won’t. This story is more like a dream – it picks up in the middle of nowhere with just enough background given and then somehow manages to have a definite ending that leaves much hanging.

Good Boys Deserve Favours – This is a great story for musicians, especially bass players.

Harlequin Valentine – Another great story, now available in graphic novel form.

Feeders and Eaters – This story is just creepy and cool. I’m not going to ruin it for you at all, but if you read one story in this book, and you want it to be a great and creepy story, make it this one. This was a dream Gaiman had. It was first a comic, which would probably also be pretty cool.

Diseasemaker’s Croup – This is a very interesting, very short story.

Goliath – One of the better stories in this book. Very Matrix-like. According to Gaiman, he wrote it to go on the Matrix’s website. Imagine that.

Sunbird – This was an exciting story. It works a lot like stories about the devil, although the payoff and revenge are a bit introverted. Gaiman says R. A. Lafferty was at one point “the best short-story writer in the world” and Sunbird is his attempt to write a Lafferty short story.

Up next: Reading the OED by Ammon Shea.

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

Here’s the inner cover blurb in my copy of The Loved One:

The Loved One is a nightmare induced by the unfamiliar diet of Southern California. That region, where all men are displaced persons, is unique in the splendid elaboration of its graveyards, and to these Evelyn Waugh turned for solace and inspiration during a brief visit. Against the background of embalming-rooms and incinerators he has contrived a neat tragedy of Anglo-American manners which we hope will amuse and instruct curious readers of both nations.

How fucking awesome does that sound? Nightmares? Graveyards? Fucking incinerators? And some SoCal hating? Holyshityes.

The Loved One may be a short novel, but it is full with jabs.
At Southern California:

“Sir Ambrose, in accordance with local custom, refrained from listening.”

At female habits of the time:

“In Aimeé’s bathroom cupboard, among the instruments and chemicals which are the staples of feminine well-being, lay the brown tube of barbiturates which is the staple of feminine repose.”

At the English, in which the main character’s love interest describes his Un-Americaness:

“I do not mean just his accent and the way he eats but he is cynical at things which should be sacred.”

And at Southern California again:

“No one in Southern California, as you know, ever inquires what goes on beyond the mountains.”

But The Loved One is more than just a series of barbs. They are merely amusing (and sometimes honest) reflections in a well-told story. The plot does indeed center around graveyards, as that is where all of the main characters work. And it is a tragedy, but the most amazing aspect of Waugh’s book is the way he makes the gruesome images of death and corpses seem so plain. By doing so, the reader’s attention does not stay focused on the darkness of the setting, but on those ever present themes of love and loss and how people deal with them. A funeral home setting is perfect for this parallel and I’m surprised it is not done more often.

Waugh does an excellent job with making a short story not seem scant. The main characters are well rounded, there are supporting roles to help their motives along, and he doesn’t revel too much in unimportant scenery. On top pf that, his story of two men fighting over one woman, a story which has been told a thousand times, does not sound trite. His brutal honesty in describing everything was a refreshment of sorts and made what could of otherwise been a simple love story into an enjoyable frolic through the graveyard.

Up next: Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman. Check it here.

This article first appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.

Consider Phlebus by Iain M. Banks

I should have known. The term “consider Phlebus” comes from our old friend T. S. Eliot. And on the very first page of Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebus, there is a quote from The Waste Land. It was stupid of me to pick this book up, right? Well, yes and no.

As the lead to this article says, Consider Phlebus was a strong influence on the Xbox game Halo, specifically the design of some of the Halo worlds. Fans of either this book or the video game would immediately notice the similarities, but that’s about as much as they need to be mentioned.

Instead, there are two amazing things about Consider Phlebus. One is how unbelievably boring the first two-thirds of it is and the other, conversely, is how enjoyable the last third of it is. Considering what the main character goes through, the monotony while reading it is striking. In the first 150 pages alone, our hero experiences:
– Being executed by drowning in a septic tank
– An explosion in the wall of said septic tank
– An attack on his spaceship
– Getting hit by a ray blast or something (whatever it was, it was supposed to be lethal, according to the other characters)
– A fist fight to the death
– A raid on a temple with some heavily-armed monks, in which no fewer than four other characters bit the dust
– A giant spaceship hitting an even gianter iceberg while he is walking on it (imagine the first scene from Spaceballs, except not funny)
– His spaceship crashing into the ocean, in which another character dies
– A three kilometer swim to shore
– And another execution, this time by being eaten alive (he actually ends up losing a finger so… that counts, right?)

His is Bora Horza Gobuchul, but his name should be James John Bruce Bond McClane Wayne, the Highlander. And although that list sounds like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie marathon on TNT, it was really difficult to read. I mean really bad. It wasn’t so much about where the plot was going, but that it seemed to be taking forever to get there. I marked out one paragraph to illustrate the leaden flow of Phlebus, but after reading it again, I think I’ll spare you.

And then, somehow in the final third of the novel, Banks manages to turn the style completely around. I read the last 150 pages of Phlebus within a day. I could have read it straight through in a couple of hours, it was that interesting. I don’t know how he did it, but he did. And I don’t know how my feelings about reading Consider Phlebus went from thinking it would never end to hoping it would never end.

Phlebus is Banks’s first sci-fi novel, and the first one of a series. It is also credited with reviving the space opera sub-genre of science fiction literature. But even his fans will admit that it is only interesting to those who have read his later works, especially those later in the series it kicks off because reading Phlebus feels like going from an opera to a ZZ Top concert.

Both of which, however, are better than reading T. S. Eliot.

Up next: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. Check it here.

This article first appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.