Authors@Google: Steven Pinker

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 05.10.2007

>> MERRILL: I'm Douglas Merrill. I'm a VP of Engineering here at Google, and as side
note I have a PhD in Cognitive Science. In my dissertation, I spend about a chapter and
a half fairly but superlatively sighting you and saying why I think you're wrong, so. For
the record every time Steven and I have argued he is being right, and I'm sure it was the
case this time as well. Steven is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard,
I believe. Is that roughly correct? He recently devolved. He was at MIT for many years, but
that's okay just to make it shorter. I asked Steven what he wanted me to say if anything
in particular and he wants me to definitely call out two things. One, well, and he wanted
me to call out one thing, which is that he was listed by Time Magazine as one of the
most 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which I find fairly creepy. But Steven wanted
me to mention that he appeared on Colbert and didn't suck. And with that it's a great,
great, great honor to introduce one of the fathers of the field of actually understanding
how human mind works, Steven Pinker. >> PINKER: Thank you so much. It's a real
pleasure and honor to be here. This old wood cut of the story of the blind man and the
elephant is a reminder that any complex subject can be studied in many ways. And that is certainly
true for a subject as complex as human nature. Anthropology can study universal patterns
of the belief and behavior across the world's societies as well as the ways in which they
defer. Biology can document how the process of evolution selected the genes that helped
to wire the brain. Psychology, my own field, can get people to disclose their foibles in
laboratory studies, and even fiction can illuminate human nature by showing the universal themes
and plots that obsess people in their myths and stories. This afternoon, I'm going to
give you the view from language: what kind of insight we can gain into thought, emotion
and social relations from words and how we use them. I'll talk about grammar as a window
into thought, swearing as a window into emotion, and innuendo as a window into social relationships.
And in each case, I'll start with a puzzle in language show how it reveals a much deeper
feature of the human mind using specific examples from English, the language of which all of
us are familiar. But examples that have close counterparts in many languages and that follow
an overall logic that can be found in all languages. So let's begin with language as
a window into thought. And the puzzle I will start off with comes from a delightful book
by Richard Lederer called "Crazy English" which has the following passage: "You have
to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language where a house can burn up as it burns down,
and in which you fill in a form by filling it out. Why is it called 'after dark' when
it is really after light? Things that we claim are underwater and underground are surrounded
by, not under the water and ground." So the first puzzle is why languages talk about the
physical world in such crazy ways. And the answer I'm going to suggest is that there
is a theory of physics embedded in our language: A concept of space in our prepositions, a
concept of matter in our nouns, a concept of space in our propositions, a concept of
a matter in our nouns, a concept of time in our tenses, and a concept of causality in
our verbs. That understanding the intuitive physics in language helps to explain not just
the quirks of language itself but the mental models that humans use to make sense of their
lives. So, let's start off with space. How do we locate an object relative to a place,
a reference location or coordinate frame? Well, you can imagine an ideal hypothetical
system of prepositions where every proposition was composed of six syllables: one each for
distance in the up-down, left-right and front-back direction, and then one each for the angle
of pitch, roll and yaw. Needless to say, no language uses this system. Instead, location
is digitized. Languages make distinctions like near versus far, on versus off, in versus
out, on versus under. Which is why Groucho could say, "If I could held you any closer,
I'd be on the other side of you." Also scale is relative. You can use the same spatial
term across to refer to an ant walking across a hand or a bus driving across the country.
And the interpretation of the word "there" will defer in a sentence like put it there,
depending on whether the person uttering it is a crane operator or a brain surgeon. Also
shape is schematic. In reality, all objects are 3-dimentional arrangements of matter.
But language idealizes them as essentially 1-deminsional, 2-dimensional, or 3-dimensional.
So we've got a line which courses a 1-dimentional, but also a road which is conceived up as 1-dimentional
with a little width flashing it out, and a beam which is also conceived as 1-dimentional
but with a finite thickness flashing it out. In contrast, we've got a surface which is
2-dimentional or a slab also construed as 2-dimentional with some finite thickness.
This idealized geometry governs are used of prepositions. So, for example the preposition
"along" requires an essentially 1-dimentional object. You can say the ant walked along the
line or along the road or along the beam, but not the ant walked along the plate or
along the ball which sounds a little anomalous. It governs the way we apply nouns to shape.
So we don't refer to a wire as a cylinder as a long, skinny cylinder, nor a CD is a
cylinder, a short fat one even though geometrically speaking that's what they are. But because
we ignore certain dimensions as insubstantial and idealize the shape as one of the remaining
dimensions. And I think it goes into our overall sense of shape, what we conceive of as similar
to what else, as when a child says, "I don't want a little crayon box. I want the box that
looks like audience." That is not the eight box of eight crayon box of Crayola, but the
sixty-four Crayon box where the crayons are arranged in pitched rows like the balcony
of an auditorium. A fourth quirk is that the boundaries of object are treated like objects
themselves. And this is something you may have heard of, heard from Ray Jackendoff,
my colleague who I understood stands--spoke here recently. We have words like "edge" which
refer to the 1-D boundary of a 2-D surface. And so, we could say the ant walked along
the edge of the plate, even if we can't see the ant walked along the plate. Or, and word
like "end" which is the boundary either of a 1-D ribbon or a 2-D beam, as long it's essentially
1-D. And you could even cut the end off a ribbon, which geometrically speaking ought
to be impossible but we conceive of the end as if it was an object itself. That explains
the mystery of why we say, "underwater" and "underground" when the thing is surrounded
by water or ground. It's because the word "water" or "ground" can refer to the 2-D surface
of the 3-D volume, not just the 3-D volume itself, and you can be under that surface.
So why is the language of space so crazy? Well, I think the main reason is that preposition
divide up space into regions with different causal consequences. And the clearest illustration
of that comes from a story that I clipped out at the Boston Globe a few years ago: Woman
rescued from frozen pond dies. A woman who fell through thin ice Sunday and was under
water for 90 minutes died yesterday. The Lincoln Fire Department said a miscommunication between
the caller who reported the accident and the dispatcher significantly delayed her rescue.
The rescue workers believed that a woman had fallen on the ice, not through it, and that
left the rescuers combing the woods to find the scene of the accident. So that digital
distinction between "on" and "through" in this case was literally a matter of life and
death even though it involved just a couple of feet in analog space. Let me turn to substance
in language. Language distinguishes stuff from things. Indeed, language taxonomises
matter into four categories. There are countable things as an apple; masses as in much apple
sauce; plurals as in many apples; and collections as in a dozen apples. These aren't so much
different kinds of matter as different frames or attitudes in looking at matter which is
why we can look at the same mass of little rocks and think of it either as pebbles, a
collection of individuals or as gravel, an amorphous stuff, and why we have the cliche
about the person who can't see the forest for the trees. In Crazy English, Lederer asks,
"Why does a man with hair on his head have more hair than a man with hairs on his head?"
Why is the language of substance so crazy? Well, words for matter allow people to agree
on how to package and quantify the continuous material world. In an obvious context in which
we see that is at the supermarket where chunks of matter have to be transacted and they can
be priced per item, which is what a count noun does; by weight, which is what a mass
noun does; or by the dozen, which is what a collective noun does. And in fact, that
same mindset that we apply to packaging matter in the physical world, we also apply to abstract
concepts. So just as we have the distinction between pebbles and gravel, we have a distinction
between many opinions as if they were discrete object and much advice as if it was an amorphous
mass. We do the same thing to happenings in time. We package the flow of experience in
the same way that we package the continuum of matter. For example, let's say I would
ask you, how many events took place in the morning of 9/11 in New York City? One answer
is there was one event, because a single plan was executed. You can demarcate events by
the realization of a plan. Another answer is two, because two buildings were destroyed.
You can demarcate time by salient physical events. This might seem like the height of
pointless semantic nitpicking or hairsplitting, but in fact it is a question with consequences
because the lease holder for the World Trade Center had an insurance policy that entitled
them to 3.5 billion dollars per destructive event. If 9/11 comprised one event, he stood
to gain three and half billion. If it comprised two events, he stood to gain seven billion.
And in a number of court cases tied up for many years, the lawyers debated this issue
in semantics. So if anyone says, "How much is a semantic distinction worth?" The answer
is $3.5 billion. Well, this brings me to the language of time. And this illustration reminds
us the time in many ways is conceived like space, and happenings are conceived like matter
as if there's a kind of "time-stuff" that could be chopped into the equivalent of objects,
except we call them events. We see this in the many spatial metaphors for time like "the
deadline is coming," or "we're approaching the deadline." We see it in kind of errors
that children make like, "Can I have any reading behind the dinner?" That is, after the dinner
as if events were stretched out in front of us. And we see it in the semantics of verb
tense. Now, verb tense, in many ways follows a semantics that is parallel to the semantics
of space and matter in the case of prepositions and nouns. First, time is digitized, and second
time is relative. That is, no language has tenses for precise intervals of time like
an hour, nor for locations in time like November 7, 2007. Instead, location in time is trichotomized
in English into three regions to find relative to the moment of speaking. An event can be
located in the specious present, an interval of about three seconds in which we don't make
temporal distinctions. It's the basic unit of nouns. This is the--specious present is
a term from William James, and it refers to an interval of time that embraces a deliberate
action like a handshake, a quick decision like how long you alight on a channel while
channel surfing and decide whether to click again, to the decay of unrehearsed short-term
memory to a line of poetry, and to a musical motif like the opening notes of Beethoven's
Fifth which we don't perceive as just one note, one note, one note but rather as a coherent
motif. Then there's the past stretching backwards indefinitely. So, every event from four seconds
ago back to the big bang is treated as identical by the English language, which is why Groucho
could say, "I've had a wonderful evening, but this wasn't it." And then, there's the future until eternity,
that is, everything from four seconds from now until the heat death of the universe all
lumped together. There are not only locations in time, what I just referred to, but shapes
in time what linguist call "aspect," that is, how a happening begins, unfolds, and ends.
Shape in time, like shape in space is treated schematically. We conceive of some happenings
as amorphously spread out in time without any crisp beginning or end, such as, the verb,
"to shake." We conceive of other events as momentaneous or a punctate, such as to swat
a fly. And then, still other events like to cross the street have no crisp beginning,
but are terminated until some goal has been achieved. In this case, you get to the other
side. Now the stretches of time that are defined by verbs can also be mentally packaged. In
the same way, that we can take a noun "beer" which just refers to the stuff generically
and then package it in a unit by use of the word "one" as in one beer, turned a mass noun
into a count noun. You can take an amorphous stretch of time like "shake it" and with the
use of particle like "out" turn it into an accomplishment that ends at a defined boundary
as in "shake it up," that is, shake it until up to completion. Likewise, we can take "wring
it" which is indefinite in terms of when it ends, and give an endpoint with the particle
"out" and say, "wring it out," that is, until it's dry. And that is why, a house can burn
up as it burns down, and you can fill in a form by filling it out. Finally, the boundary
of an event can be treated like an event itself, just as with space. Just as I can cut off
the end of a ribbon which is geometrically impossible, I can start the end of my talk
which is temporally impossible if you think of end as simply the instant of termination.
Why is it called "after dark" when it is really after light? Well, dark is--refers not just
to the interval of darkness but to the boundary of the interval of darkness, and it's exactly
isomorphic to why in the language of space we can say "underwater" when the thing is
surrounded by water. Why is the language of time so crazy? Well, we identify locations
in time coarsely, because stretches of time relative to the moment of speaking have different
consequences for knowledge and action. And a fancy-shmancy way of putting it would be
that there's a bit of metaphysics and epistemology that's packed into our tense system. It's
not purely a chronological concept. In particular, that present tense corresponds to our own
consciousness, to what you can experience as you're alive and awake and aware, and are
registering your own consciousness. The past is not just an interval in time, but that
which is thought to be knowable and factual and unchangeable. As in a report of the Scott
Peterson murder case as it was unfolding, where investigators noted that Peterson used
the past tense when referring to his wife and unborn son before their bodies were found,
abruptly correcting himself. His use of the past tense betrayed his knowledge of what
he knew had taken place while he was testifying. The future conversely we conceive of is not
just any old stretch of time but that which is unknowable, hypothetical, and willable.
As when Winston Churchill said, "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the
landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the
hills. We shall never surrender." It's deliberately ambiguous whether he was simply making a prediction
as to what would happen on a future date, or whether he was making a declaration of
resolve and will. Those two can't be distinguished, and the future tense in English and many other
languages systematically conflates them. And finally, we turn to causality of language
where the model of causality in our verbs can be summarized in this diagram, that is,
an actor directly impinges on an entity, making it move or change. The psychologist, Phillip
Wolff, has done a simple experiment to show how this works. He had computer animations.
In one case, Sarah grabbed the doorknob and physically swung the door open; in the other
case, she opened the window and a breeze blew the door open. If you ask people, "Did Sarah
cause the door to open?" In both cases, people say yes. If you then express causality inside
the verb by saying, "Did Sarah open the door?" Then in the case where she manhandled the
door, they say yes. In the case where it was more circuitous, they say no. Why is the language
of causality so crazy? Well, directly caused events are the ones that are most likely to
be foreseeable and intended; hence, those for which we can hold people responsible.
And a nice illustration of that comes from an episode in American History in 1881, which
shows that when the directness of causation is fuzzy, so is our sense of moral and legal
responsibility. President James Garfield was waiting for a train in a Baltimore Station,
and Charles Guiteau stalking him, fired two shots into him. Now, the bullets missed his
major organs and arteries, and his wound needn't have been fatal even in Garfield's time. However,
he was subjected to the harebrained medical practices of the day, which included probing
his wound with unwashed hands and feeding him through this rectum instead of through
his mouth. So, he wasted away on his deathbed for three months before finally succumbing
of infection and starvation. At the assassin's murder trial, he said--the assassin said,
"The doctors killed him. I just shot him." The jury was unpersuaded and Guiteau hanged,
but nonetheless, this is another illustration of the life and death consequences of the
semantics of a verb. So to sum up language as a window into cognition, there's a theory
of physics embedded in our language, a conception of space in terms of places and object and
qualitative relationships, a conception of matter in terms of stuff and things, stretched
along 1, 2, or 3 dimensions, a conception of time in terms of processes and events,
located and stretched along a single dimension, and a conception of causality in terms of
the direct impingement of an actor upon an entity. This way of construing reality differs
from real physics but it corresponds to human goals and purposes; the causal texture of
the environment, what is knowable, factual, and willable; to ways of packaging and measuring
our experience; and to ways of assigning responsibility for events. Let me now turn to Part II. Language
is a window into emotion. And again, I'll begin with a puzzle of language. Four years
ago, the Golden Global Awards were broadcast on live network television on NBC. And accepting
an award on behalf of the rock group, U2, its leader Bono said in accepting the award,
"This is really, really fucking brilliant." Now, the switchboards lit up like a Christmas
tree. The case eventually landed up on the desk of the FCC, which had to decide whether
to fine the network for failing to bleep out the offending word. And somewhat surprisingly,
the FCC chose not to fine NBC, saying that their regulations defined indecency as, "Material
that describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities," and that the "fucking"
in "fucking brilliant" is, "An adjective or expletive to emphasized an exclamation." Well,
cultural conservatives were enraged, and there were a number of bills filed in Congress to
close that loophole. Of which my favorite is, House Resolution 3687: The Clean Airwaves
Act, which I will now read in its entirety. You can look it up. "Be it enacted by the
Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
that section 1464 of title 18, United States Code is amended: (1) by inserting '(a)' before
'Whoever'; and (2) The term 'profane,' used with respect to language, includes the words,
'shit,' 'piss,' fuck,' 'cunt, 'asshole,' and the phrases 'cock sucker,' 'mother fucker,'
and 'ass-hole,' compound use including hyphenated compounds of such words and phrases with each
other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and
phrases including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms." Unfortunately,
the "fucking" in "fucking brilliant" is an adverb, and that's the one part of speech
that they forgot to include on the list. So, grammar matters, linguistic is important.
And the question is, why do people get so upset about certain words? It's not as if
anyone hasn't heard them, and indeed, words for sex and excretion have been the main legal
battleground of free speech in the past century. There's a paradox. You can turn on a late
night television and watch Leno or Letterman or Stewart called George Bush a moron or a
liar, and they didn't have to worry about getting their tongues cut out or being burn
at the stake or worse. But if they were to use particular words to refer to excretion
or sexuality, the network would be subject to ruinous fines. So what's going on there?
Well, that brings us to the language of swearing? And I'll begin with the cognitive neuroscience
of swearing; that is, how is the brain engaged when people use or hear a taboo word? The
main generalization is the taboo words activate brain areas associated with negative emotion.
They seem to be registered more in the right hemisphere, which we as independently been
connected with negative emotion. In production, they seem to involve the basal ganglia. That's
the area that is overactive in Tourette syndrome, for example. The basal ganglia being complex
networks of ganglia buried deep in both halves of the brain that are involved in packaging
sequences of behavior. In perception, they seemed to involve the amygdala, a two, small
almond-shaped organs also evolutionary quite ancient buried deep within the brain. Also,
taboo words are processed involuntarily. You can't help but hear a taboo word with all
of its emotional baggage. And the way that psychologists demonstrates that something
is involuntarily is to use the "Stroop Test," a phenomenon that is, familiar to any psychology
undergraduate and that has been the subject of more than 4,000 scientific papers. So,
the test is simple. You simply have to name the color in which a series of words is printed.
And we'll try it right now. I'll give you a list of words with each word. Simply name
the color in which it's printed ignoring what the word says. Okay? Let's start off. Red,
black... >> Green, blue, black, blue, red, green.
>> PINKER: Easy. Okay? Now, try it again, same instruction: name the color in which
the word is printed.
Much, much harder. The explanation is that to a literate adult, reading is automatic.
You can't process a written word as a squiggle even if you try to. The meaning always gets
through despite your best intentions. And here's a third version of the Stroop Test.
I mentioned there were 5,000 papers on it. My favorite comes from a psychologist named
Don McCoy at UCLA. And again, the instruction is identical. Just name the color in which
the word is printed. Black...
People are slowed down on this version of the Stroop Test almost as much as when the
word is printed in a competing color. So the essence of swearing is using languages as
a kind of weapon to force a listener to think an unpleasant or at least an emotionally charged
thought exploiting the automatic nature of speech or printed word recognition. Well,
this then breaks down the problem of swearing into two problems: What kinds of concepts
trigger negative emotions, and why would a speaker want to trigger a negative emotion
in his listeners. Well, let's start with the contents of swearing. Anyone who speaks more
than one language knows that taboo words differ from language to language. If you translate
the curses of one language into another, the results can often be comical. Nonetheless,
there are certain common patterns, certain things that supply the meanings of taboo words
across all cultures. There's the supernatural as in our own "damn, hell, and Jesus Christ,"
which nowadays are fairly mild taboo words but they are continued to be more potent in
religious societies, especially Catholic ones. For example, where I grew up in Quebec, in
the version of French spoken there when you stub your toe, you say, "damn chalice" or
"damn tabernacle." And this involves the emotions of awe and fear at the supernatural and the
trappings of deities. There are bodily effluvia and organs, which are familiar sources of
taboo words in English. It's not surprising that people would have an emotional reaction
to bodily effluvia because epidemiologists tell us that they are major vectors of disease.
There are many parasitic and infectious diseases that are spread by bodily fluids. We have
evolved an emotion to defend ourselves against this rude of disease transmission, namely,
the emotion of disgust. There are, in many languages, taboo words for disease, death,
danger, and infirmity. In older periods of English, we have the curse of "A pox on you!"
or "A plague on both your houses!" from Romeo and Juliet. In Yiddish, you can curse by shouting
out "Cholerya, Cholera". And even in contemporary English, there's a bit of taboo that surrounds
the word for our most dreaded malady "cancer" and when often reads in an obituary of someone
passing away from a long illness. Both the passing away and the long illness are ways
of--are showed that there's some taboo status to the words "die" and "cancer". And this
involves the emotion of dread of death and disease. There is, of course, sexuality as
in some of our most obscene taboo words. And when people hear this, their first reaction
is: But why should thoughts about sex be associated with negative emotions? Isn't sex between
consenting adults, a form of a good, clean fun? Well, not in the full sweep of human
experience where sexuality can also be associated with exploitation, illegitimacy, incest, jealousy,
spousal abuse, cuckoldry, desertion, child abuse, feuding, rape. Sex is an emotionally
fraught activity, and it's not surprising that people should continue to have strong
emotions surrounding it which we can call revulsion at sexual depravity. Then there
are words for disfavored people in groups, including the most taboo word in contemporary
respectable American English, the word so incendiary that you can't even mention it.
You have to use a word to refer to the word, that is, the n-word. And the words for minorities,
for infidels, for cripples, for enemies, for subordinated peoples are often taboo in English
not just--in many languages, I should say. In English, we have not only a "nigger," but
also various other racial epithets, and that, of course, invoke the emotions of hatred and
contempt. Okay. So, those are the kinds of negative thoughts that people inflict on one
another through language. Why would they want to? What is the motive for this kind of verbal
aggression? Well, there are at least five ways to swear, probably more, but five ways
in which people deploy this weapon. Beginning with dysphemistic swearing, and what does
that mean? The difference between say "shit" and "feces" or "fuck" and "copulate". Now,
you all know what euphemism is. The logic behind the euphemism is we have to talk about
this first for a specific purpose. But let's avoid thinking about how awful it is. The
logic is a dysphemism is exactly the opposite. It's, "I want you to think about how awful
this is." And the English language gives you the means of doing either. A good illustration
is in the 34 euphemisms for feces. Now, people don't like to think about feces anymore than
they like to smell it or touch it. Nonetheless, we are incarnate beings for whom feces is
a part of life and you can't get through life without at least some occasions in which you're
forced to refer to the stuff. The solution is to have a specialized vocabulary, each
one of which is specific to the need to discuss feces for a specific purpose in a particular
context. So, we got generic terms like waste, fecal mater, and filth; formal terms often
from Latin like feces and excrement; terms that you use with children like poop and doo-doo;
terms that you use to adults about children like soil and dirt; terms in the medical context
like stool and bowel movement. Many terms that you have to use in connection with animals
depending on whether you're referring large units like pats; small units like droppings;
scientific context like scat; an agricultural context like manure. And in this golden age
of recycling, the need has arisen for a term to refer to human feces being recycled as
fertilizer. And so far, three euphemisms have appeared: night soil, humanure, and my favorite,
human boisolids. So that's why we need euphemism. Indeed, if you were to use the wrong euphemism
in a particular context, the results would be rather odd. For example, if at the next
doctor's appointment, the nurse came up to you and said, "The medical lab will need a
doo-doo sample." You'd be little surprised. As you would be if you bought a gardening
magazine and it said, "For nice plump tomatoes, fertilize your plants with cattle bowel movement."
But we also need dysphemisms. There are times in life were the point for politeness has
passed, and one wants to remind listeners of how disagreeable what is being referred
to truly is. For example, you might open your window and yell at some boor, "Will you pick
up your dog shit?" Or recount an experience like, "The plumber was working under the sink,
and I had to look at the crack in his ass the whole time." Or you can imagine a wife
snooping on her husband's email and saying, "So while I've been taking care of the kids,
you've been fucking your secretary!" The offense is deliberate and the English language gives
us the means of expressing that strong emotion when the need arises. So dysphemistic swearing,
there's also abusive swearing were you deliberately use language as a weapon to intimidate or
humiliate someone. And there are moments in life when the temptation arises to abuse or
intimidate someone. And scholars who have studied Maladicta, swearing curses, imprecations
have often commented on how a shear linguistic ingenuity that goes into them. All of the
classic poetic devices, metaphor, imagery, connotation, alliteration, meter, rhyme, all
of them are put to use in obscene imprecations. For example, you can liken people to effluvia,
and their associated organs and accessories is when you talk, refer to someone as a piece
of shit and asshole or a dickhead. You can advise them to engage in undignified activities
such as to "eat shit, shove it up your ass, or fuck yourself." You can accuse them of
having engaged in undignified sexual activities, and every undignified sexual activity has
an obscene imprecation. For example, incest as in mother fucker; sodomy as in bugger;
fellatio as in cocksucker; masturbation as in jerk and wanker; and my favorite comes
from bestiality. And this is a curse that was last used in 1585, but I suggest that
it would be revive. And the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, instead of using
one of those hackney cliches, I suggest you advise the person to kiss the cunt of a cow,
which not only at least bring some fresh imagery to the situation. But I think it has a rather
pleasing alliteration. There's idiomatic swearing, which is he mildest form of swearing, such
as shit out of luck, get your shit together, piss-poor, pissed off, my ass, a pain in the
ass, sweet fuck-all, what the fuck, which, it's actually rather puzzling what those--exactly
those words are doing in those--that syntactic context. But clearly what's happening is the
words are simply being used for their ability to arouse the interest and shock the listener.
Also, it can be used merely to assert a kind of macho or cool pose, or more--in a more
friendly manner among peers, to express informality. Just say this is the kind of setting where
you don't have to watch what you say. Closely related to idiomatic swearing is emphatic
swearing where the taboo word again is used to arouse a listener's attention to call,
focus on the following noun. As in this--or adjectives, this is really, really fucking
brilliant. He thinks he's a fucking scoutmaster, Rip Van fuckin' winkle. Close the fucking
door, and so on. And the overuse of emphatic and idiomatic swearing leads to the form of
English sometimes called fuck patois. As in the story of the soldier who said, "I come
home to my fucking house after three fucking years in the fucking war, and what do I fucking-well
find? My wife in bed, engaged in illicit sexual relations with a male!"
Then there's cathartic swearing, the phenomenon were when you cut your thumb together with
a bagel or you spill a glass of beer in your lap, the topic of your conversation abruptly
switches to theology or sexuality, or excretion. Now, if you ask people why they swear in that
way, they'll say it lets off steam, it releases tension, the hydraulic theory of the mind.
The problem with this theory is that, it can be no more than a metaphor, because neurobiologist
haven't literally found a boiler full of steam in the skull or a set of valves and pipes,
just brain cells that fire in patterns. So, more satisfying is the rage-circuit theory
that throughout the mammalian class there is a reflex in which an animal, when suddenly
injured or confined, engages in a furious struggle accompanied by a sudden angry noise
presumably to startle or intimidate an attacker. Any one who has a sat on their pet cat or
caught a dog's tail in a door is well familiar with this reflex. In humans, the idea is that
this reflex also triggers the language system which has taken over control of our vocal
track. So in addition to uttering a yelp, we might articulate the yelp using a word
for a strong negative emotion, one that we ordinarily inhibit ourselves from saying.
And I think there's a lot to the rage-circuit theory, but has one problem which is the cathartic
swearing is conventional. You have to learn what to yell in a particular language when
a particular accident befalls you. So in English, for example, if you hit your thumb with a
hammer, you don't shout out whore or cunt, although there are lots of languages in which
you do. And indeed, the cathartic swear word is specific to the cause of the misfortune.
So if someone cuts you off in traffic, you might say asshole, but if you stub your toe,
you'd be more likely to say shit or damn, or fuck. So, this leads to the response-cry
theory from the great sociologist, Erving Goffman that cathartic swearing is communicative;
it is not just an overflow of emotion. It basically informs a real or virtual audience
that you are currently in a throws of some very strong emotion, indeed so strong that
you can't completely control it, nonetheless, you are signaling exactly what emotion you're
feeling. And so it belongs together with other response-cries in the language like aha, mmm,
ouch, whoops, wow, yes, and yuck. And therefore it has that communicative function. So to
sum-up language as a window into emotion, humans are prone to strong negative emotions.
So language tells us awe of the supernatural, disgust at bodily effluvia, dread of disease,
hatred of disfavored people and groups, revulsion at depraved sexual acts. Nonetheless, people
sometimes want to impose these thoughts on others to gain their attention, to intimidate
or humiliate them, to remind them of the awfulness of the objects and activities, or to advertise
that one has the normal reactions to misfortunes. Okay. Part three, language as a window into
social relations. Again, I'll begin with the puzzle of language, this one comes from the
film Fargo, from an early scene in which a kidnaper has a hostage in the backseat of
his car, is pulled over by a police officer because he's missing his plates. He's asked
to show his driver's license, he hands over his wallet with the driver's license visible
and a $50 bill extending ever so slightly and he says to the officer, "I was thinking
that maybe the best thing would be to take care of it here in Brainerd." Which of course
everyone interprets is a veiled bribe. Now, this is an example of an indirect speech act,
a case in which you don't blurt out exactly what you say but you veil it in innuendo expecting
your listener to listen between the lines. Another example, "If you could pass the guacamole,
that would be awesome." This is a polite request when you think about it, it doesn't make a
whole lot of sense. But nonetheless, it is instantly understood as a request. "We're
counting on you to show leadership in our Campaign for the Future." Anyone who's been
unfortunate enough to sit through a fund raising dinner is familiar with euphemistic snoring
like that that is a solicitation for a donation. "Would you like to come up and see my etchings?"
This has been recognized as a sexual come on for so long that in 1932, James Thurber
could draw a cartoon with a confused young man saying to his date, "You wait here and
I'll bring the etchings down." And then, "Nice store you got there. It would be a real shame
if something happened to it," is something that we all recognize as veiled threat. So
the puzzle is why are bribes, request, seductions, solicitations, and threats so often veiled,
when both parties know exactly what they mean? This isn't just an academic puzzle but it
has a great deal of practical importance such as in the crafting and interpretation of a
language of treaties and diplomacy, and in the prosecution of extortion, bribery, and
sexual harassment which are often conveyed by innuendo rather than overtly. The solution
turns out to be more complicated than I thought when I tried to explain the phenomenon, and
I think there are at least three components to the solution. The logic of plausible deniability,
the logic of relationship negotiation, and the logic of mutual knowledge, and I'll explain
what I mean by each of those. Let me start with the--with, what the game theorist and
noble prize winner, Thomas Schelling called the identification problem. Now, how do you
deal with another intelligent agent when you don't know his or her values? Bribing a police
officer being a prime example. Imagine that you had two choices, when you're pulled over,
either to utter a blatant naked bribe or not to bribe the officer. What will happen? Well,
it depends very much on what kind of officer you get. You could get a dishonest officer
who might--would accept the bribe, giving you the very high payoff of going free or
you might have an honest officer who not only would rebuff the bribe but might arrest you
for attempting to bribe an officer in which you'd have a very high cost of an arrest for
bribery. So, neither option in this row is--I'm sorry--neither row is appealing. Both of them
involve a significant cost. But given this situation, you're better off with a traffic
ticket than risking the arrest for bribery. But now imagine you had a third option, namely
to issue a veiled bribe through innuendo, like I was wondering if maybe we could take
care of it here. Well, if you have a dishonest officer, he could sniff out the bribe in the
innuendo and you get a very high payoff of going free from an overt bribe. If you have
an honest officer, even if he suspected the bribe he couldn't make it stick in court because
of the demand of proving something beyond a reasonable doubt, and so the worst you would
get is a traffic ticket. So you get the high payoff of an overt bribe with a relatively
small cost of not bribing at all, all combined in one option so the veiled bribe is the rational
choice. This is the logic of plausible deniability. But the reason it's not enough is that what
about non-legal contexts? It's not as if we spend our lives in legal jeopardy of a particular
pre-defined legal penalties or proving something in a court of law. What about when you want
to bribe someone in everyday life. Now you might say, "Well, why a law-abiding citizen
want to offer a bribe in everyday life?" Well, how about this? You want to go to the hottest
restaurant in town. You have no reservation. Why not slip the maitre d' a $20 bill and
see if you can be seated immediately in exchange for the 20? Well, this was the assignment
given to the food writer, Bruce Feiler by Gourmet Magazine on a dare from the editor,
and he had to write up his experiences in doing that. And I found that write-up, as
a psychologist, utterly fascinating. First of all, it was marked by extreme anxiety.
As far as I know, no one has ever been sent to jail for attempting to bribe a maitre d'.
Nonetheless, he begins his article as follows: "I am nervous. Truly nervous. As the taxi
bounces through the trendier neighborhoods of Manhattan, I keep imagining the possible
retorts of some incensed maitre d': What kind of establishment do you think this is? How
dare you insult me? Do you think you can get in with that?" Second, when you did screw
up the courage to offer a bribe, he instinctively veiled it in an innuendo. He would say things
like: "I hope you can fit us in." Or, "Can you speed up my wait?" Or, "I was wondering
if you might have a cancellation." Or, "This is really important night for me." The third
interesting finding was the outcome, which is that he was invariably seated in between
two and four minutes to the astonishment of his girlfriend. This is something that's worth
knowing next time you want to gets in a chic San Francisco restaurant on a Saturday night
with no reservations. So what's going on here? Well, here's a general theory that language
has to do two things. You have to convey the particular content like a bribe, a command,
or a proposition. At the same time, you have to negotiate the kind of relationship you
have with the person. The solution is to use language at these two levels. The literal
form is consistent with the safest relationship you have with the listener. The speaker then
counts on the listener reading between the lines to entertain a proposition that may
be incompatible with that relationship. And politeness is a straightforward case. What's
going on with "If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome." For one thing, you
have to admit it's kind of an overstatement. It would literally be inspiring awe. Also,
why are you pondering a hypothetical possible worlds right there and then at the dinner
table? Well, the listener, amusing that the speaker is not mad, figures that the speaker
says an outcome is good; therefore, he must be requesting it. The overall effect is that
the intended content mainly the imperative gets through. But crucially without the presumption
of dominance, that is, without the impression that you are treating your listener as some
kind of underling or flunky. So if dominance is one of the relations that people try to
avoid in their speech, what are the other relationships that people are sensitive to?
Well, an anthropologist named Alan Fiske has argued that dominance is one of three major
types of human relationships that characterize social interaction in all of the world's cultures.
Each prescribes a distinct way of distributing resources. Each has a distinct evolutionary
basis. And each applies most naturally to certain people but can be extended via language
to others. So, there's dominance whose ethos is "don't mess with me," and which must have
come from the dominance hierarchies that are ubiquitous among the primates. There's a very
different mindset of communality where the ethos is "share and share alike," which is
probably the product of kin selection and mutualism, and is naturally applied to kin,
spouses, and close friends. And then there's reciprocity. The ethos of "if you scratch
my back and I'll scratch yours," the tit for tat trading of goods and services in a business-like
manner that follows the loss of reciprocal altruism. Now, critically, people distinguish
these kinds of relationships. And a behavior that's acceptable in one relationship type
can be anomalous in another. So at a cocktail party, you might go over to your girlfriend's
plate and help yourself to a shrimp off her plate. But you wouldn't go up to your boss
and help yourself to a shrimp off his plate, because that would be confusing the communality
relationship that couples have with the dominance relationship that a supervisor commands. Or
at the end of a dinner party, if you were to pull out your wallet and offer to pay your
host for the cost of the food, that would not be perceived as polite. That would be
perceived as rude. And the reason is that it applies the reciprocity mindset that would
be appropriate on a store to a communal friendly gathering where the ethos is communality.
Now, when in those situations where relationships are ambiguous, divergent understanding can
be costly. That is, we experience an unpleasant emotion. We have a name for it: awkwardness,
when the two parties aren't sure of the relationship type. For example, there could be moments
of awkwardness in the work place where an employee doesn't know whether he can refer
to his boss on a first name basis or invite him after work for a beer. It's well-known
that good friends should not engage in a business transaction like one selling his car to the
other, that it put a strain on the friendship, because these are reciprocity and communality
are diametrically opposed ways of dealing with resources. The conflict between dominance
and sex is when a supervisor solicits an employee, defines the battleground for sexual harassment.
And the conflict between friendship and sex is what makes dating such a fraught domain
in the subject of so many situation comedies. Well, this gives rise to a social identification
problem where the social costs of awkwardness from mismatched relationship type can duplicate
the payoff matrix of the legal identification problem that is raised by bribing a cop. And
bribing a maitre d' is a perfect example where the clash is between the authorities that
a maitre d' ordinarily exerts over its fiefdom and the reciprocity that you are raising by
the possibility of the bribe. So, once again, your choices are: offer a bribe. If your choice
is would just offer a bribe or don't offer a bribe, the results would depend on whether
you got a corrupt maitre d' who would accept it and seat you immediately, or a scrupulous
maitre d' who would say, "How dare you insult me. What kind of establishment do you think
that is?" If you don't offer a bribe, you accept the dominance relationship of the maitre
d' and you avoid the awkwardness but you'll just have the long wait for the table. If
you offer the bribe, then if you have a corrupt maitre d' who consummates the reciprocity
relationship, you get the quick table. When you have the scrupulous ones who continue
to maintain dominance when you're suggesting reciprocity, you get that unpleasant emotion
called "awkwardness." If you say, "I was hoping there might be a cancellation," on the other
hand, the corrupt maitre d' could sense the bribe and you get the high benefit of the
quick table. The scrupulous one could choice to ignore it, and the worst that you'd have
is the long wait preserving the harmony of relationship type. So this is--I think there's
one problem that still remains, even solving the maitre d' problem, which is that people
aren't naïve. How do you deal with the problem of meta-knowledge the fact that usually both
parties know when an overture has been made by innuendo? Life isn't a court of law. You
don't have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. And so, any deniability is not in fact
all that plausible at all. Why should an obvious indirect overture feel less awkward than an
overture that is in so many words and that--and hence is on the record. Now, illustrate that
with a scene from the romantic comedy "When Harry Met Sally." Early on the film when the
couple has just met, Harry makes a sexual comment and Sally says, "You're coming on
to me." And he says, "What do you want me to about it? I take it back. Okay? I take
it back." And she says, "You can't take it back." And he says, "Why not?" She says, "Because
it's already out there." He says, "Oh, jeez. What are we supposed to do? Call the cops?
It's already out there." So the puzzle is what is the status of an overture that is
sensed to be "out there" or "on the record" or "once said, can't be unsaid," that makes
it so much worse than a veiled overture that's implicated indirectly? Well, there are a number
of answers, but I think the most compelling is the concept that logicians and economist
sometimes call "mutual knowledge or common knowledge" which must be differentiated from
identical individual knowledge. In the individual knowledge: A knows X and B know X. In mutual
knowledge: A knows X, B knows X, A knows that B knows X, B knows that A knows X, A knows
that B knows that A knows X add in as an item. Now, this is a distinction with a difference
that there are qualitative differences between shared identical knowledge and mutual or common
knowledge in a technical sense. And a couple of everyday examples are: 1) why do democracy
enshrine freedom of assembly as a fundamental right and why are so many political revolutions
instigated when a crowd assembles in a public square. Well, before the assembly, everyone
may have known that they were disgruntled, but when everyone comes together for that
reason, now everyone knows that everyone else knows that everyone is disgruntled. That mutual
knowledge can embolden people to challenge the authority relationship and bring down
a dictator who would otherwise be able to pick people off one at the time. Likewise,
the whole point of the Emperor's New Clothes story depends on the concept of mutual knowledge.
With the little voice said the Emperor is naked. He wasn't telling anyone anything they
didn't already know, individually. But, he was conveying information nonetheless. Now,
everyone knew that everyone else knew and that everyone else knew that they knew, once
again that could change the relationship and they could challenge the authority of the
Emperor. The moral of this is that language is a very good way of exploding individual
knowledge into mutual knowledge. The hypothesis is that innuendoes merely provide individual
knowledge where as direct speech provides mutual knowledge and it's mutual knowledge
that is a trigger for maintaining or changing a relationship. So, if Harry were to say,
"Would you like to come up and see my etchings," Sally knows that she has turned down an overture.
Harry knows that she has turned down an overture. But does Sally know that Harry knows? She
could think to herself, "Maybe Harry thinks I'm naive." And does Harry know that Sally
knows that he knows? Harry might wonder, "Maybe Sally thinks I'm dense." There is no mutual
knowledge and they can maintain the fiction of a friendship. Whereas if Harry where to
have said, "Would you like to come up and have sex?" Then, Harry knows that Sally knows
that Harry knows that Sally knows, they cannot maintain the fiction of a friendship. And
I think this is what's behind the intuition that with overt speech, you can't take it
back, it's out there. To sum up language as a window into social relationships, people
have to convey messages while unsure of their relationship, indirect speech could minimize
the risks in legal context with tangible costs like bribes and threats. The same thing could
happen in everyday life because relationship mismatches could have an emotional cost. And
finally, indirect speech prevents individual knowledge from becoming mutual knowledge and
its mutual knowledge that's the basis for a relationship. Okay, we'll now I'm going
to begin the end of my talk. In a psychology, one often faces the problem of overcoming
people's familiarity with their own mental processes and way of life to nullify the anesthetic
of familiarity, to make a familiar seem strange. And one way of doing that is by framing the
problem, in terms of being a Martian scientist. How would a Martian biologist arriving on
earth with no preconceptions characterize our species? Today's question is how would
a Martian linguist describe our species documenting our nature just from the way we use language?
Well, I think you could say a lot when it comes to human cognition, the Martian linguist
would say that humans have an intuitive theory of the physical world. They locate things
in space by identifying places and locating objects in qualitative relationships to them.
They construe matter as formless stuff or discrete things which are stretched along
one, two or three dimensions. They order and package events in time, relative to their
own motion, moment of consciousness, and they explain events by identifying their causes
namely an actor that impinges on an entity. Human intuitive physics differs from real
physics, but it helps them to reason and agree about aspects of reality relevant to their
purposes, their understanding of cause and effect, what they can know, change and will,
how they package and quantify their experience and how they assign moral responsibility.
People not only have ideas, but they steep them with emotion. They stand in awe of deities.
They are terrified by disease, death and infirmity. They are revolted by bodily secretions. They
loathe enemies, traitors and subordinate peoples. They take a prurient interest in sexuality
in all its variations. Despite having negative reactions to so many thoughts, humans willingly
inflict these thoughts on one another; to remind them of the unpleasant nature of certain
things, to intimidate or denigrate them, to get their attention, or to advertise their
reactions to life's frustrations and setbacks. When it comes to human social life, humans
are very, very touchy about their relationships. With some of their fellows typically kin,
lovers and friends, humans freely share and do favors. With others, they jockey for dominance.
With still others, they trade goods and services on a tit-for-tat basis. People distinguish
these relationships sharply. When one person breaches the logic of a relationship with
another, they both suffer an emotional cost. Nonetheless humans often risk these breaches,
sometimes to get on with the business of life, sometimes to renegotiate their relationship.
Finally, humans think a lot about what other humans thinks about them, and their relationship
are ratified by this mutual knowledge. They know that others know they know what kind
of relationship they share. As a result, to perverse their relationships while transacting
the business of their lives, humans often engage in hypocrisy and taboo. And those are
some of the ways in which language can serve as a window into human nature. Thank you very
much. Thank you. >> Do you guys want to have some questions?
Can we have a few minutes for questions? >> PINKER: Any questions? You can, gracefully,
yes. >> Hi.
>> PINKER: Yes, where are you? There you are. >> I'm over here.
>> PINKER: Yes. >> I want to thank you for speaking today.
It was awesome. >> PINKER: Thank you.
>> I have a question about your description about why swearing has the impact it us, oh,
you know, we're disgusted by effluvia. What that doesn't explain is why a person who perfectly
understands multiple words for effluvia will find some of them swearing.
>> PINKER: Yeah. >> And some of them perfectly an objectionable.
Do you have a comment on that? >> PINKER: Yeah, you know, it's a very good,
a very pointed question. So, it can't simply be that the word is associated with the referent.
In addition, I think there is the taboo words, have the, the--communicative intent, packaged
into them that says, I am referring to this with full, with the intention of arouse it
in you the emotional reaction that the referent ordinarily arouses. So in addition to the
semantics of what in the world it points to, there's this additional communicative of message
of here's why I'm doing it in order to offend you. That is absolutely, you're right, that's
absolutely crucial to the distinction between a taboo word and its polite euphemism.
>> So, congratulations. I think you've just done 90 percent of this swearing that's ever
been done in this room in 20 minutes. >> PINKER: I insist, that I don't swear, I
talk about swearing. >> Okay.
>> PINKER: See, and if you've taken philosophy or recognized the use versus mentioned distinction?
>> I'll keep that trick in mind. I'm wondering whether part of your claim is also that these
swear words basically span the space of important negative emotions or whether, you know, there
are gaps, are there important negative emotions that aren't accounted for by swearing?
>> PINKER: I think, in a particular language, they don't span the space, they sample from
it. Across the world's languages, I suspect they would span the space that is if--I mean,
it's kind a surprising to hear, you know, "cholera" as a taboo word in Yiddish and also
in Polish, and what has to look across languages to get the full spectrum. But, there are enough
of them that I suspect you would. In a hundred agriculturists, for example, their taboo words
for dangerous animals, you can't, you can't mention the name of the word impolite company,
the name of the animal, for example. >> Yes, do you have any favorite theories
or experiments about either of the following, one is use of swear words to cover for a small
vocabulary... >> PINKER: Yeah.
>> For pejoratives and exclamations. The second is a dampening effect for if someone who subjected
to a lot of curse words in a recent past, the next one doesn't have as much of an emotional
effect on them. >> PINKER: Yeah. That's certainly true, and
I think especially emphatic swearing and idiomatic swearing can often be used to make up for
a, otherwise, limited linguistic resources because the challenge of a speaker is to retain
the listeners' attention of why should I listen to you as opposed to all the other people
that they could listen to. And a cheap way of doing that is to exploit this little buzz
that a taboo word arouses and just like other ways of trying to keep listeners listening
to you as opposed to all the other people that they could be listening to you can rely
on that. I think that it's not enough just to hear the swear words, I think that they
have to be heard in a context in which one knows that they're not being used in an aggressive
or taboo-breaking fashion. So one of them could be the use of taboo words in these idioms
which clearly in [INDISTINCT] of soldiers and athletes and Australians and teenagers.
They lose some of their stimulant and you could see that happening over time. In Mainstream
English its happened too "bloody and damn" both of which were Taboo in the first half
of 20th Century as in when Rhett Butler said, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," and
it was considered shocking at a time. In Australia, New Zealand, "bugger" is a perfectly acceptable
word, so that can happen and also of course there's the phenomenon of the targets of taboo
epithets appropriating the word in affectionate conversation among themselves therefore nullifying
it as in the affectionate use of nigger among African-Americans or [INDISTINCT] dyke, bitch
and so on. That's another way in which they can be defanged.
>> So mainly thinking of something else, there is the opposite effect of euphemistic decay
whether euphemism has become proxies to the other things. Like, playground language dot
and going people special because that's a... >> PINKER: Yes.
>> That now means retarded. >> PINKER: Yes, I call that the euphemism
treadmill. >> Right.
>> PINKER: Where when the referent continues to be emotionally charged, the euphemism will
cease to become a euphemism and will in turn become offensive. So, yeah, you're right.
A complete answer would say that it doesn't always work and sometimes the referent can
just taint any word that is used in connection with it even a new one.
>> So what I was actually going to ask about was one of the things that's very popular
at the moment in the computing world is what we call social software or social networks
but we're tying to construct models for people to communicate with each other and it strikes
me that from what you said about representing human relations, we're making a mess of it
by just calling one friend or, you know, not expressing the nuances here. Are we not losing
here or do you think we could express these euphemistic things in terms that we can understand.
>> PINKER: It might be possible because there is the--of this three relationships, an enormous
amount of cultural--a number of cultural practices in social life comes in to a kind of mind
manipulation to try to force or seduce people to accept one or another of these relationship
types. So for example, the use of kinship terms, like, you know, sisterhood is powerful,
brother can you spare a dime is one way of getting a stranger into the mindset of communality.
Wearing--signs of dominants, the, you know, the headdresses and epaulettes and shoulder
pads, I think I have some shoulder pads here are ways of conveying a smidgeon of dominance
in a relationship that otherwise would be a egalitarian and there are numerous techniques
some verbal, some almost have to be non-verbal in order to be effective where we try to manipulate
people to accept one or the other. So they are--I think we've got these three switch
settings in our brain, but what triggers them can be as often a subject of benign and sometimes
not so benign manipulation, so it could be possible. Yeah.
>> So I think there are a lot of common instances where the words decay, you started talking
about how a word had a very strong potent effect at some point in over time it lost
that, are there many examples of the opposite when a common word becomes, you know, tainted
and attracts that. I was told, you know, once that, you know, the words like shit where
just sort of everyday, Anglo-Saxon words and that they acquired that power.
>> PINKER: Yes, that's exactly right. And one reads in sources before more or less before
the reformation I think that might be a dividing line where which marked the transition from
religious to sexual and scatological wearing in Protestant but not in Catholic countries
were it was routine religious wearing but it may have been then that words as you note
shit and fuck and cunt were actually unexceptionable words in English and they took on a taboo
status. Something like that in more recent times is what happened to the word nigger
over the last little while which is why you can get library wars surrounding Huckleberry
Finn where the casual use of nigger in Huckleberry Finn, it certainly wasn't a respectful term
but it didn't have that same aura of racism and contempt that it has now and nigger probably
are our most taboo word might be an example of that. I think it might be true of other
term seemed to be kind of misogynistic and where we have--increased activity as in Don
Imus using the word "ho" out of context where it caused him his job because of our heightened
sensitivities to racial and gender bias. So you can almost see a transition where originally
people really were worried about God and hell than they were worried about sexuality and
excretion, now they're worried about sexism and racism.
>> Yeah, there seemed to be sort of power relationships, I was wondering if there's
sort of more ordinary and a more ordinary example?
>> PINKER: Well, I think some of them are--I don't know if they are power so much as say,
imposed by those in power to retain power so much as...
>> Dominance, yeah. Yeah, dominance. >> PINKER: It could be dominants but I think
it's also just what people are kind of edgy about and that creates the opening I think
for using certain words to get a rise out of people, so I suspect I don't know. I haven't
really thought about but I suspect it's more of a kind of what's in the air than the authorities
kind of imposing it from the top down, it would be my hunch.
>> You spoke a lot about the connection between swear words and negative emotions, I wonder
also about the connection between swear words and humor, or swear words and laughter, you
may have noticed that it caused a lot of laughter in this room when you mentioned a lot of those
words. It's also something that you hear a lot maybe in a comedy show just to kind of
invoke that laughter, I wonder if you have any comments on that.
>> PINKER: That's right. It is also talking about lazy ways of getting a laugh out of
people often taboo words can do that. I think it's probably because--by the way, just an
aside is that laughter is also a very good way of generating mutual knowledge and I would
argue that the evolutionary function of laughter is to generate mutual knowledge. It's involuntary.
It's conspicuous. It's more common in social settings than in isolation. It's contagious
and so on. But why--why do you laugh in public? In particular what's the common denominator
with swearing? I think it's the reduction of dignity just about all humor involve some
kind of reduction in dignity. You either take someone down a few pegs, making him the butt
of a joke or to maintain communality and negate dominance among friends. You tease your friends
or deprecate yourself but descent and dignity is, I think, the common denominator in human--in
humor I'm sorry--and the undignified nature of what you refer to in swearing is, I mean,
an ingredient of taboo language. >> I came in a little late so I apologize
if you've already addressed this in the beginning, but I was wondering if you could speak to
the tone in which language is delivered and not necessarily just the word selection. So
something as innocuous says, "What are you doing?" "Hey, what are you doing?" "What are
you doing?" "Hey, what are you doing?" Like... >> PINKER: Yeah.
>> For example. >> PINKER: Yes, well that's the porosity which
often can be used both for emphasis, for stressing a particular part of your utterance which
the listener ought to attend too often in contrast with some implied set of alternatives
is a very powerful rhetorical tool and superimposed on that is the elocutionary force of an utterance,
question versus statement versus command. And a third dimension on top of those two
is emotion: anger, sarcasms, irony and so on. That's one of the reasons why written
language can so easily be misunderstood if you don't have those intonational cues, why
we have crude approximations like italics and exclamation points but it really is an
essential ingredient to linguistic communication. And of course put to grammatical uses in languages
like Chinese in which tone is used as a way of contrasting vowels. In connection to today's
talk I suspect that tone of voice is one of the ways in which you learn which words are
taboo as a child namely if some epithet is being uttered in an angry and contemptuous
tone of voice that it is more likely to be registered as a taboo imprecation. Likewise,
in cathartic swearing, how do you know which of the taboo words that you utter when you
stub your tone and so on? Well, it's the--I think accompaniment of the word and emotional
tone of voice that register that association in the brain.
>> And I would just like to say thank you very much for coming.
>> PINKER: Thanks for having me here today. Thank you very much. Thank you.