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The ingredients of language

How does language work? Steven Pinker explores many questions such as how children learn their mother tongue and where languages reside in the brain.

How does language work? What is the trick behind our ability to share so many different kinds of ideas, merely by making noise as we exhale? Steven suggests there is not one trick but two. Words are arbitrary pairings between a sound and a meaning, stored in memory. Rules combine words into sequences in which the meaning of the sequence can be computed from the meanings of the parts and the way they are arranged. Evidence for this hypothesis comes from a case in which words and rules express the same meaning but are psychologically, and perhaps even neurologically, distinct: irregular forms like bring–brought,which are memorized individually as if they were words, and regular forms like walk-walked, which are generated on the fly by rules.

The prediction that regular forms are generated by rule whenever memory fails helps to make sense of many puzzles of language, such as where regular and irregular forms come from in the history of a language, how children learn their mother tongue, where language resides in the brain, how languages differ and what they have in common, why a batter is said to have flied out to centre field, why the team in Toronto is called the Maple leafs, and why no one really seems to know the plural of Walkman.

The Henry Dale Prize is awarded by the Ri and supported by the Kohn Foundation.


Professor Steven Pinker | talks | www


Date and Time:

20 September 2004 at 7:00 pm


1 hour 30 minutes



The Royal Institution of Great Britain
21 Albemarle Street
+44 20 74 09 29 92

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