On 3 quarks Daily Abbas Raza reviews Steven Pinker’s new book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.
Rather than make a futile attempt at summarizing 439 idea-crammed pages, what I’d like to try to do here is give you a flavor of the kinds of things the book is about by briefly explaining one of the many fascinating stories that Pinker tells about language and what it entails for “conceptual semantics”–the concepts and schemes that we use to think–indeed, the language of thought itself. Let’s jump right in: we begin by considering what one of Pinker’s colleagues once jokingly referred to as one of Pinker’s “little friends”: the verb “to load”. Take a sentence like Hal loaded hay into the wagon. [All linguistic examples used in this review are Pinker’s own.] This is what linguists call a content-locative construction because it is the contents being moved that are the object of the sentence. Notice that this sentence is indistinguishable in meaning from Hal loaded the wagon with hay. This latter sentence is known as a container-locative construction, since it is the container which is the object here. One can do also perform this operation (call it the locative rule) with other transitive verbs:
Jared sprayed water on the roses.
Jared sprayed the roses with water.
Betsy splashed paint on the wall.
Betsy splashed the wall with paint.
Jeremy rubbed oil into the wood.
Jeremy rubbed the wood with oil.