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Using Language to Understand Human Nature

This article was based on the TEDGlobal talk, “What Our Language Habits Reveal” by Steven Pinker:

Steven Pinker: What our language habits reveal


The Evolution of Language

Language emerges from human minds interacting with one another. This is visible in the constant changes in language throughout time.  We see it in the appearance of slang and jargon, in the divergence of dialects, and the formation of new languages. These changes offer a window into human nature.


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Changing our words and speech patterns can often cause problems with the technical constructs of a language.  One such problem is, which verbs go in which constructions. The verb is the framework onto which the other parts of a sentence are built around.  


Changing Meanings

Here’s a quick grammar lesson.  If you have an intransitive verb, such as “dine,” for example, it cannot take a direct object. You have to say, “Sam dined,” not, “Sam dined the pizza.” A transitive verb mandates that there has to be an object there: “Sam devoured the pizza.” You cannot just say, “Sam devoured.” There are dozens of verbs of this type, each of which shapes its sentence. This complexity creates a challenge when teaching language to both people and machines.  

Which verbs go in which construction depends on whether the verb specifies a kind of motion or a kind of possession change. To give something involves both causing something to go and causing someone to have. To drive a car only causes something to go. To give someone a headache causes them to have a headache, but it’s not as if you’re taking the headache out of your head and causing it to go to the other person, and implanting it in them. You may just be loud or obnoxious, or in some other way causing them to have a headache.


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Understanding Grammar

You may be wondering why any of this is important.  First, there’s a level of conceptual structure that governs our language, which we automatically compute every time we produce a sentence. This is based on a fixed set of concepts that govern the use of millions of words.  Not only does this have to do with parts of speech, but also fundamental concepts such as space, time, causation and human intention.

The second conclusion is the ability to conceive of a given event in two different ways.  Take, for example, the phrases “cause something to go to someone” and “causing someone to have something.” While the ultimate meaning is the same, people differ on the facts as to how they ought to be construed.


The Language of Relationships

Language also gives us insight into human relationships.  The key idea is that language is a way of negotiating relationships, and human relationships fall into a number of types. Relationship types can be negotiated. Even though there are default situations in which one of these mindsets can be applied, they can be stretched and extended. For example, communality applies most naturally within family or friends, but it can be used to try to transfer the mentality of sharing to groups that ordinarily would not be disposed to exercise it.


Intentional Ambiguity

There are also examples of how language is ambiguous in social interactions.  It has to satisfy two conditions. You have to convey the actual content as well as the metaphor. This can be seen in a thinly veiled bribe.  You want to express the bribe or the promise, but you also have to negotiate and maintain the kind of relationship you have with the other person. The solution is that we use language at two levels.  The literal form signals the safest relationship with the listener, whereas the implicated content allows the listener to derive the interpretation which is most relevant in context, which possibly initiates a changed relationship.


A Record of Change

No matter which aspect of language you study, ultimately it is a collective of human creation, reflecting human nature, how we conceptualize reality, and how we relate to one another. By analyzing the various quirks and complexities of language, you can gain deeper insights into society.  As we continue to evolve in our social interactions, our language morphs but provides a historical record of our changes.


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