Words and Rules – Steven Pinker

This is another book that seeks to understand what is mind, but from a very unique point of view. In Words and Rules, Pinker takes us through the nature of language, and specifically through the problem of regular and irregular verbs, and its relation to mind.

We often take language for granted, we never think about how we learn language? How do we understand language in our minds? Is it static or dynamic in our minds? Where does language come from?

Words and Rules

This are the two tricks we use to communicate ideas. Words are a memorised arbitrary paring between a sound and a meaning. We call a tree ‘tree’ because someone told us it was that way and we memorised it, there is no empirical way in which we could have gotten there.

Rules on the other hand, is a code we have created in our mind to arrange and combine words into meaningful combinations. Our minds are constantly looking for patterns (as we read on Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman). Regular verbs are a very good example of this. Or the word ‘trees’, we don’t need to memorise it. Once we see the pattern and understand the ‘rule’ on how to conjugate regular verbs we can conjugate any verb, even non-existing made-up ones! Rules are useful because they help us save space in our memory.

Therefore, language is a combination of both words we memorise and the rules we create.

Irregular Verbs

Things start getting really interesting when we put our lens to the irregular verbs. When very young children start speaking they just memorise the words, they have no conception of the rules part of language. And they speak relatively well. However, when they get a little older, their minds start figuring out the rules and all of a sudden they’re over applying them, and their speech starts deteriorating, being messier than it was before. This usually happen when they’re 5 years old.

Over applying rules is not a problem that attacks children uniquely, often, adults start conjugating irregular verbs with the rules they’ve learned. Sometimes, this slight changes we unconsciously make to the words stick, and we get to what Pinker calls ‘the broken telephone’, which is a big contributor to the change (and deterioration) of language through time. This also, might be the reason for why we sometimes pronounce words very differently than they’re written. When speaking we overuse the rules and start creating new pronunciations, and the written form has not been able to keep up.

Theoretical Controversy

But this is Pinker’s theory. He explains that previous to him, Noam Chomsky and Morris Hale had presented their theory of generative phonology, explaining that  we have a battery of rules that generates both regular and irregular forms, and that the past tenses of irregular verbs are the results of rules based on phonological similarities.

By analysing more in depth the mistakes children often make, like saying ‘fishes’ for the plural of fish, or ‘bringed’ as the past tense of the verb bring, Pinker gets to the conclusion that irregular verbs are not remembered using rules, but they have their past tenses memorised directly. In other words, irregular verbs are memorised as ‘words’ not ‘rules’. In the very interesting yet confusing chapter 8, The Horrors of the German Language, he finds further support for his theory by finding out that German speakers memorise the past tense of verbs. The book ends with an analysis of where we store the ‘words’ and where the ‘rules’ on our brain.

“The ingredients of a language are words and rules. Words in the sense of memorized links between sounds and meaning, rules in the sense of operations that assemble the words into combinations whose meaning can be computed from the meanings of the words and the way they are arranged.” – Steven Pinker


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