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The Stuff of Thought

Language as a Window into Human Nature

By Steven Pinker
15-minute read
Audio available
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker

The Stuff Of Thought (2007) offers an in-depth look at language and, more specifically, what it can tell us about human nature and the complexities of the human mind. These blinks touch on everything from our ability to unconsciously detect subtle grammatical patterns to the linguistic rules surrounding politeness.

  • Readers interested in the complexity of language
  • Psychologists and language therapists
  • Students of linguistics and literature

Steven Pinker is a linguist, psychologist and professor at Harvard University. He’s also the author of a number of popular books, including How The Mind Works, and The Better Angels Of Our Nature.

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The Stuff of Thought

Language as a Window into Human Nature

By Steven Pinker
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker
Synopsis

The Stuff Of Thought (2007) offers an in-depth look at language and, more specifically, what it can tell us about human nature and the complexities of the human mind. These blinks touch on everything from our ability to unconsciously detect subtle grammatical patterns to the linguistic rules surrounding politeness.

Key idea 1 of 9

Even the most tragic events can spur linguistic debates, and words have more practical importance than we think.

Everybody remembers September 11, 2001, the day two hijacked planes collided with the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. On that day, the two planes crashed in quick succession, the first hitting the north tower at 08:46 a.m. and the second hitting the south tower at 09:03 a.m.

But what does that have to do with language or linguistics?

Well, even highly traumatic events can launch debates about the precise meaning of words. For instance, while it may seem obscure, in the aftermath of this tragedy, a debate ensued about whether the 9/11 attacks on New York constituted a single event or two separate ones.

Here’s how the two sides saw it:

The commonly held understanding of the World Trade Center attack as a single event – a coordinated terrorist attack that provoked a series of military and political responses. But it can also be viewed as two separate instances: one attack on the north tower and a second on the south.

Seeing footage of the first tower engulfed in flames while the second remains intact drives home just how separate the two attacks were, at least for 20 or so minutes.

While such distinctions might seem insignificant, they’re actually more important than people might believe. After all, words, and the details around them, have a great deal of practical importance in daily life.

And this is particularly the case when it comes to law. Returning to the example of 9/11, the debate between seeing it as a single event or two separate ones held $3.5 billion in the balance; the leaseholder of the World Trade Center, Larry Silverstein, was insured for a maximum of $3.5 billion per destructive event. Therefore, if the attack was considered two separate events, he would have received compensation for both.

So, exploring language and its intricacies isn’t just some intellectual game. It can have real-world consequences, and in the following blinks, we’ll explore how, using some less tragic examples.

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