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Review of The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

Pinker (2007, p. 52) writes, “We have good reason to believe that English speakers conceive of events in similar ways, because they make similar judgments about how verbs can be used. But how do they arrive at this consensus? There must be some independent criterion…”

As an economist I find it incredible that linguists struggle to identify this independent criterion. It is value. When a child comes into the world, he has, not one, but two important tasks: learning to speak the language of his parents and learning to assign values to the things around him. A child cannot formulate a grammatical sentence without first asking himself, what are the respective values of the objects being discussed? But it is also true that, as soon as a child has advanced beyond the basic taste test (sticking everything he encounters in his mouth) he cannot assign value to objects without first asking himself, how do my parents use the word in sentences?

Pinker (2007, p. 34) writes, “In dozens of studies I’ve found that the average ratings from volunteers have always lined up with the original subjective judgments of the linguists.” The reason for this consensus is clear. It is because we all know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad. A toddler, after doing a careful and highly scientific study of the objects around him, by sticking them all in his mouth, has, regardless of his race or socio-economic status, reached the same conclusion: plum pudding is good to eat, dog poop not so much.

Pinker (2007, pp. 36-37) gives two example sentences and some commentary:

“Jimmy drenched his jacket with beer.
“Jimmy drenched beer into his jacket.

“That’s funny… Why should the second sentence sound so odd? It is not that the iffy sentence is unintelligible. No one could be in doubt as to the meaning of Jimmy drenched beer into his jacket. But language is not just whatever set of ways people can think of to get a message across. Children, in the long run, end up with a fastidious protocol that sometimes rules out perfectly good ways of communicating. But why?”

What Pinker fails to realize is that the speaker is not just describing an event, spilling beer on a jacket, but also communicating the economic value of these items. A glass of beer costs $2 while a nice jacket costs $200. Clearly, Jimmy is a lot more concerned about the possibility of staining his jacket than he is about going thirsty for lack of beer. To put beer ahead of jacket in the sentence is not a perfectly good way to communicate. In fact, it misses the whole point.

A small child who witnesses this incident can, just from the grammatical construction, immediately learn that jackets are more valuable than beer, even without having ever sipped a beer or worn a jacket. Thus it is that advances in his understanding of economics depend on linguistics. But advances in his understanding of linguistics also depend on economics. It is only because we, as adults, already know that jackets are more valuable than glasses of beer that the first sentence sounds grammatical to us while the second sentence just sounds wrong.

Suppose that I am a wine connoisseur and, on taking a $200 bottle of wine down from the rack, I lose my grip and drop it on the concrete floor, where it shatters.  Which sentence sounds grammatical and which ungrammatical?

Oh! I spilled on the floor my wine!
Oh! I spilled my wine on the floor!

Clearly, what breaks my heart is that I’ve lost an expensive bottle of wine, not that I’ve caused an unsightly purple stain on my nice concrete floor. The sentences are of exactly the same construction as in the previous example; the only difference is the relative economic value of the beverage and of the object on which it was lavished. But here we take the second sentence to be grammatical, not the first.

Let us conclude with an example that Pinker spends some time on:

Hal loaded hay into the wagon.
Hal loaded the wagon with hay.

Which is grammatical? Pinker believes that they both are. But I would tell you, if you interviewed the three-year-old child of a farmer, he would assure you that the first sentence is grammatical. Even at that age he would know that hay is a valuable commodity and it is very important to get hay, and not straw, into the vehicle, be it a wagon, a cart, a pickup or whatever. But if you interviewed the three-year-old child of a teamster, he would be equally certain that the second sentence is grammatical. It matters not whether the dumb old farmer is pitching hay or straw into the wagon, only that he has completed the task so the child’s father can get on with the important job of driving the wagon to its destination. For these two youngsters, grammar is all a matter of perspective.

My purpose in writing this short review of Pinker’s work is not to say, linguistics is all twaddle, we should study economics instead. Nor should anyone think that linguistics is the path to enlightenment while economics concerns itself only with coarse money grubbing. My purpose is to point out that neither science can advance without an understanding of the other.


Pinker, Steven. 2007. The Stuff of Thought. New York, NY: Viking