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Steven Pinker’s Talk on Language Report (Assessment)

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Updated: Feb 9th, 2022

Nowadays there are more than 3000 different languages all over the world. It seems that every century languages become richer, more saturated with synonyms and antonyms, complicated constructions, slang, and jargon, etc. Steven Pinker, in his talk on language, raised a notion that languages cannot be ideally structured, as they are constantly changing by everyday interaction of speakers. It is clear from his speech that some vagueness in language could be rather a benefit than a defect. There is a need in human nature of thought to visualize the same event in different ways. Even if people use the same facts in conversation, they care about an appropriate form to construct them. Although the well-structured approach, in theory, could simplify the use of language, a vagueness of language can be the case as it is essential for some social interactions.

To start with, the presenter stated that academy, which role is to institutionalize the correct usage of language, does not actually change it, because usually, language is gradually shaped by human interaction. Thus, language does not influence human nature, it rather sheds light on it. Every language in its structure hides the insights on the relationship types which regulate human interaction and the cognitive machinery that helps people to conceptualize the world. Next, Steven Pinker (2005) pointed at the technical problem of the usage of verbs in different constructions. As an example, he demonstrated the sentences with intransitive and transitive verbs, which respectively acquire and do not acquire the direct object in a sentence. The analysis of such constructions points at a close-grained conceptual structure that humans unconsciously use to produce a sentence. In other words, it is a “language of thought” that regulates the use of language.

Moreover, according to Pinker (2005), such a conceptual structure is based on a fixed set of concepts, including human intention, time, causation, and space. Furthermore, all the structures in English can be used in a metaphorical way instead of literal. It is interesting that the relationship types that guide human social life, are also reflected in language. People often use an indirect speech to veil the real message they enclose into a sentence, usually in such situations as making a polite request, threat, solicitation, or offering a bribe. Language is a method of negotiating relationships, and there are some basic types of behavior we use in language as well. Sometimes, there is a mismatch in type selection what leads to awkward situations between communicators. In such moment the so-called plausible deniability comes into play and gives some benefits (Pinker, 2005). It means that in some cases, people use words and structures which have indirect meaning with hope that the listener will derive the appropriate interpretation.

A great example of plausible deniability can be the way Donald Trump often makes overconfident claims concerning the future. Another simple example could be an indirect request for the higher mark by the student during an exam when he/she does not tell the truth of being unprepared. Instead, in that case, the student usually recounts obstacles and problems which hindered the preparation in the hope that the examiner will take pity on him/her and put a higher final grade. Nevertheless, in some situations, plausible deniability might bring problems. For instance, if the lower rank official in the army uses vague language when delivering the report about the operation, the general may misunderstand what he meant, which can lead to unnecessary loss of lives. It also would be inappropriate for one to tell the doctor about a health problem in an obscure way.

To conclude, the language is being shaped by everyday communication between humans. It is not possible to regulate it in a way to eliminate all vagueness. Instead, the way people construct their speech reflects how they conceptualize reality and behave in a particular situation. Sometimes, it is better to use a quasi-metaphor construction because it brings benefits to the narrator. In general, every situation needs a different approach, and the wealth and flexibility of language provide the narrator with various tools to fit such a situation.

Reference list

Steven Pinker (2005). What our Language Habits Reveal. Ted Global. Web.

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IvyPanda. 2022. "Steven Pinker’s Talk on Language." February 9, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/steven-pinkers-talk-on-language/.


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