Listen or read the following collection of Scott’s interviews with leading experts and learn from their studies.
Dr. Steven Pinker
Dr. Steven Pinker is National Bestselling Author of several books on language and cognition, and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University,
What is your background?
I grew up in the Anglophone Jewish community of Montreal, went to Dawson College and McGill University before getting my Ph.D. at Harvard in experimental psychology. I’ve spent most of my adult life bouncing back and forth between Massachussetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, where I’m currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology. Though my primary research area is language, I’m interested in all aspects of language, mind, and human nature, and have written on just about every aspect – from irregular verbs to swearing to violence and its historical decline.
What is your profession?
I’m a professor of experimental psychology and cognitive science.
What are your personal and/or professional experiences with language?
I’ve written six books on language. Language Learnability and Language Development is a technical book which presented a comprehensive theory of how children acquire the words and grammatical structures of their mother tongue. Learnability and Cognition, also technical, focused on the meaning, syntax, and acquisition of verbs, and what they reveal about the mental representation of reality. For two decades I focused on the distinction between irregular verbs, like bring-brought, and regular verbs, like walk-walked. The two kinds of verbs embody the two cognitive processes that make language possible: looking up words in memory, and combining words (or parts of words) according to combinatorial rules. This was the subject of many technical books and papers, but also a popular book: Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, which presented my research on regular and irregular verbs as a way of explaining how language works.
In 1994, I published The Language Instinct, an introduction to all aspects of language, held together by the idea that language is a biological adaptation. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, published in 2007, discussed the ways in which language reveals our thoughts, emotions, and social relationships, including swearing, innuendo, euphemism, names, and the language of space, time, matter, and causality. My more recent book on language is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, a style manual based on modern research in psycholinguistics and cognitive science.
I have also published several studies of the genetics and neurobiology of language. Most recently, I’ve been investigating the psychology of common knowledge (I know that you know that I know that you know…) and how it illuminates phenomena such as innuendo, euphemism, social coordination, and emotional expression.
(Followup) How do you define a regular verb versus an irregular verb?
An irregular verb is one that defies a general rule, which in the case of the English past tense is “add –ed.” Examples include sing-sang, bring-brought, fling-flung, meet-met, put-put, come-came, and go-went. There are about a 165 of them, depending on how you count, and they all require some form of memorization, though the memory load is mitigated by two factors. One is that many irregular verbs are among the highest frequency in the language—indeed, the ten most common English verbs are all irregular (be-was, do-did, have-had, say-said, take-took, come-came, and so on). The other is that many irregular verbs fall into families with a similar sound (sing-sang, ring-rang, sink-sank, sit-sat; feel-felt, meet-met, dream-dreamt, sleep-slept; wind-wound, find-found, grind-ground), and human memory superimposes similar patterns, easing the load. For these two reasons, “irregular” is not always the same thing as “difficult,” though for the rare irregulars (such as forsake-forsook), or in languages with more irregularity than English, they can certainly be a burden when an adult foreigner has to learn the language.