Thursday, March 24, 2011

Steven Pinker

Finally made it to my first Master's Tea at Yale: Professor Marvin Chun hosted internationally renowned linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker this afternoon at the Berkeley Master's House, which was packed with scores of students eager to hear Pinker speak about the human mind. As Professor Chun noted at the beginning of the talk, the huge turnout evidenced the fact that "cognitive science is very much alive and well at Yale."

Pinker began with an analysis of the 164 irregular past tense verbs in the English language, highlighting some of his research in the field. He also explained his support for expanded use of the passive voice, citing relevant research on the greater cognitive burden of certain embedded sentence structures (although I think a bit extra exercise for short-term memory might be beneficial for many of us).

During the second half of the talk, Pinker focused on his work in social linguistics. In particular, he outlined his theories regarding the use of innuendo in language. According to Pinker, the fact that "coffee doesn't mean coffee" is an example of the role of indirect speech in conveying potentially awkward or inconvenient messages in a manner that leaves enough ambiguity to avoid jeopardizing interpersonal relationships.

(Listening to Pinker speak was particularly meaningful for me, not only because he is about as famous a superstar as anyone in the world of cognitive science, but also because I spent a good portion of my time and energy senior year of high school trying to disprove his claim that music is "auditory cheesecake," i.e. an evolutionarily superfluous art form that developed by piggybacking on preexisting cognitive structures and mechanisms.)

Incidentally, the Master's Tea also reminded me that I need to put Pinker's The Stuff of Thought on my summer reading list.