Steven Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard and has won prizes for his work on visual cognition and the psychology of language.
This book is subtitled "Language as a Window into Human Nature," and a wide, clear, picture window it is.
Pinker wants us to understand that it is language that distinguishes not just ape from man but men from one another, and how we say what we say reveals who we are, where we’re coming from and where we think we’re going. Oftentimes, he works towards that understanding by using humor. One of my favorites: someone said to W C Fields, “It’s difficult to lose a relative.” Fields replied, “Nearly impossible.”
Pinker shows us that jokes, euphemisms and slang speak volumes about society and culture. He cites the now immortal words of Bill Clinton defending himself against the charge of having lied about having sex with Monica Lewinsky, "It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Referencing the "semantics of time," Pinker says that Clinton was stretching the context to its far limits to try to convince his hearers that an action in a certain time frame is no longer real, no longer “is” once that time frame has passed. Something like a tree falling in the woods, but in this case, a high public official falling from grace.
Pinker rhapsodizes on George Carlin's "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television." Take, for example, an amnesiac who, for all ordinary intents, recalls nothing of his past. Yet he will still remember how to shout a four-letter words if he stubs his toe. "For almost as long as neurologists have studied aphasia, they have noticed that patients can retain the ability to swear." The motive power of saying words to reinforce them is a process that lies at a deeper level than words remembered by reading or other rote methods of learning. Most cursing is learned by saying words out loud.
In the chapter on bad language, the author cites a Revoltingness Questionnaire administered in Australia: feces and vomit won out, in case you wanted to know, with hair clippings, breast milk and tears way down the list.
Some of our perception of curse words, according to Pinker, is culturally based. “If you're an English speaker, you can't hear…
(here he lists a number of racial insults)…without calling to mind what they mean to an implicit community...including the emotions that cling to them." This is a very definition of “political correctness.” Yet these “bad” words are language, are speech, and as such, they need to be allowed to roam free through society. They have a purpose. Pinker therefore doesn’t condemn swear words, merely advising against their overuse because it "blunts their emotional edge."
The book is not all about swearing. It’s a thinking person’s survey of why we say what we say that includes how we perceive time and how we name our children, among other important topics. It was more book than I bargained for and will stay on the shelves as a reference – and great source of intelligent punchlines.
Pinker asserts that "The view from language shows us the cave we inhabit." The better we understand it, the closer we are to the mouth of the cave. To crawl a little farther towards the light, read The Stuff of Thought.