Listened to Steven Pinker on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week this morning after a tip-off – the very first thing he said was hilarious and then the whole discussion veered off on a tangent about gender differences in swearing practices. ‘Yes,’ he proclaimed, in answer to Marr’s starting query about what he meant by the term ‘verbivores’ in his new book, ‘We subsist on words!’
I know the man is a famous professor and I know he writes beautifully and I know there’s a Facebook appreciation society in his honour and I do actually think that at least one chapter in the Language Instinct is worth reading. But still, we don’t subsist on words. It’s the same kind of superficially appealing but ultimately contentless metaphor that can be seen in the work of certain other famous academics in which they postulate the existence of a ‘language organ’ – a figment which a couple of articles by Everett have established is at best a theoretical construct, considering that, unlike other human organs such as hearts and limbs, it is actually invisible – it can’t be seen and can’t be located. At least spoken words do have physical properties which can be objectively measured, but unfortunately they still don’t provide much in the way of sustenance.
Language isn’t an organ, thought isn’t made of stuff, verbs can’t be devoured, and although I’m sure Pinker’s latest publication will be a stimulating read, the obsession with (abstract) form at the expense of communicative function which characterises the school of thought to which he belongs is neither the only possible way of thinking about language nor even the most fruitful. Please do bear that in mind should you venture to read the book.
Everett (2005), ‘Biology and language: a consideration of alternatives.’ Journal of Linguistics 41: 157-175
Everett (2006), ‘Biology and language: response to Anderson & Lightfoot.’ Journal of Linguistics 42: 385-393
Pinker (2007), The Stuff of Thought.