Steven Pinker - Linguistics as a Window to Understand the Brain

One of the things I first enjoyed when I was introduced to philosophy was its recursive nature: we could use thought to investigate the nature, the rules, the structure and the limits of thought itself (and what that could tell us about the human mind). For a very similar reason I have a certain appreciation and fondness for linguistics. Most of our communication takes place through language, and linguists are hard at work trying to understand what they can about human cognition, nature and culture, by paying close attention to the way in which we use language.

In the following lecture, Steven Pinker provides a fascinating introduction to questions such as how syntax (the study of linguistic structure), phonology (the study of sound), semantics (the study of meaning) and pragmatics (the study of the social and cultural role and context of language), all help us to understand how language works. He also provides a lesson on the nature of the various rules of grammar and sound production, how language is first acquired, how it's processed and how it's encoded in the brain, the difference between language and thought, the ambiguity inherent in our use of language and the interesting and humorous consequences to which it can lead, and why it is so difficult for computers to understand language while it seems so easy and automatic for us.

Importantly, Pinker also touches on the major influence that Noam Chomsky has had on the field, especially his hypothesis of an innate, hard-wired universal grammar as an explanation for language acquisition in children, the open-ended creativity inherent in language, and the nature of syntax as separate from content and meaning, all of which can provide a window to understand certain key aspects of the human mind and human nature more generally.

Don't forget to check out a fascinating and delightful meditation on language by Stephen Fry.
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