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The Missing Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought

It would be so easy to latch on to one particular section in cunning linguist Steven Pinker’s new book, The Stuff of Thought. It’s full of expletives, cussing, and good old swear words. There’s a serious point to Pinker’s use of so many taboo words, and it interesting to say the least to hear him using them in interviews and to watch the unprepared interviewer squirm.

But, that’s as maybe. For a blog post aimed at a general audience it would be inappropriate to use some of the more savoury language discussed. Moreover, the post, and potentially the Sciencebase website itself could so easily be tagged as containing adult contact and be filtered out by search engines, proxy servers and nanny software. I could use asterisks to mask off the vowels, but you’d still know what words I was citing and it would look silly. More to the point, while the expletives, their context and usage are fascinating and certainly worthy of close scrutiny, it is the words that Pinker admits do not actually exist that are of most interest.

So what words can we discuss that don’t exist? Well, for instance, why is there no gender-free term for a single member of a herd of cattle in common usage? It sounds wrong to discuss “a cattle”, but on occasions when you do not know the sex of the bovine in question you cannot differentiate between a cow and bull.

And, what about a politically correct word to use instead of the uncomfortable his or her in a sentence where some people might use the grammatically incorrect “their” as a PC alternative. Similarly, there is apparently no emotion-free word for a heterosexual partnership as there is for married couples (spouse) or gay couples (partner). Pinker himself often feels obliged to qualify mention of his own partner as being a woman to save confusion, but suggests that lover is too romantic while, flatmate is not only too unromantic, but is seriously ambiguous, as is the word partner. I’m sure there are many more examples, but Pinker delves into what these missing words (actually the singular cattle is one of my pet peeves) tell us about language and how we think.

You can download a very entertaining interview with Pinker from The Grauniad (mp3 format, 33Mb).

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