Subjects Discussed: The Starbucks coffee cup size hierarchy, L.A. Story, “divorce project” and unusual noun phrase connotations, perceptive illusions in language, connotation and denotation, polysemy, campus slang and being hip, euphemisms, the unpredictable nature of words and terminology, the origins of “spam,” the absence of specific terms, locative elements of verbs, meanings and brute memorization, “giggle” vs. “Google,” profanity, offensive language, the difficulties of the surname “Koch,” groups adopting pejorative terms, Lenny Bruce’s infamous routines, dysphemisms, whether the Internet truly reflects language, Overheard in New York, William Safire’s columns, linguists being forever behind the language curve, the origins of “not” (from Wayne’s World) and “my bad,” Jerry Fodor’s extreme nativism vs. reductionism, cultural colloquies vs. cultural status, George Lakoff and language as metaphor, the inevitability of metaphor within certain occupations, language and politics, the brain as a computer, the Declaration of Independence, syntactical memes just under the radar, spatial elements and morphemes, memorization, rigid designators and Saul Kripke, given names that are already in the human continuum, and causation within language.
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Is the world getting less violent? It seems unlikely. But Steven Pinker has amassed empirical evidence to show that it is. In this interview with Nigel Warburton for the Social Science Bites podcast he explains some of the possible causes of this transformation.
With Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.
Chair: Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA
For Steven Pinker, the brilliance of the mind lies in the way it uses just two processes to turn the finite building blocks of our language into infinite meanings. The first is metaphor: we take a concrete idea and use it as a stand-in for abstract thoughts. The second is combination: we combine ideas according to rules, like the syntactic rules of language, to create new thoughts out of old ones.
How can a choice of metaphors start a war, impeach a president, or win an election? How does a mind that evolved to think about rocks and plants and enemies think about love and physics and democracy? How do we control the amount of information that we absorb? And what good does this actually do us?
Join Steven Pinker as he tries to answer these questions and many more, unlocking the hidden workings of our thoughts, our emotions and our social relationships and showing us that language really can tell us unexpected and fascinating things about ourselves.
Jim al-Khalili talks to Steven Pinker, a scientist who’s not afraid of controversy. From verbs to violence, many say his popular science books are mind-changing. He explains why toddlers say “holded” not held and “digged” rather than dug; how children’s personalities are shaped largely by their genes and why, he believes the recent rioters had plenty of self-esteem.