SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Chemical Eye on Words
by Preston MacDougall


November 15, 2006

Ribosomes may make my bones, but words are just as much me.

Steven Pinker's fascinating book - The Language Instinct - didn't say it in so many words, but I think this aphorism succinctly expresses his expert perspective on "how the mind creates language".

First published in 1994, by William Morrow and Co., when Pinker was a Professor of Brain and Cognitive Science at MIT, this absorbing book is now in print as a Perrennial Classic from HarperCollins Publishers. Pinker himself is now at Harvard.

Smart small companies often get bought out by richer bigger ones. And creative scientists are known to occasionally migrate to greener pastures. Still, some things never change.

jpg words

Photo courtesy

The premise of Pinker's book is that the physiology of the human brain is such that we are "hard-wired" to communicate in what linguistics pioneer Noam Chomsky has called a "universal grammar".

Just as some of us are "big-boned" and others are Audrey Hepburn, there is plenty of wiggle room in our gray matter for this universal grammar to be accommodated by ever-evolving languages. Nurture, and reading lists, add further variations on writing style, and Pinker has plenty of that.

To borrow a sentence from Pinker's later book - How the Mind Works - "Every idea in this book may turn out to be wrong, but that would be progress, because our old ideas were too vapid to be wrong."

As I was reading his interpretations of intriguing experiments on learning language, and his speculations on the role of evolutionary biology, one word kept popping into my head - atoms. Eventually, when he is discussing the elements of universal grammar, he defines a root word as a "syntactic atom", in the sense that neither can be split without losing their meaning.

To me, the analogy is stronger than that. In forms of matter that are familiar, atoms are united in more or less transferable "functional groups" that can be swapped in and out of molecules, often in order to achieve more desirable properties. Typically, editors of books written by scientists do much the same thing with words, but Pinker's prose is so sharp and entertaining that this may not have been necessary.

While the sizes, shapes, and functionalities of molecules are infinitely variable, just as a mouthful of words can be strung together to form a two-word matrimonial confirmation, or a dizzyingly long soliloquy, there are rules of bonding that constitute a molecular grammar. For instance, "I do!" and "Do I?" will elicit vastly different emotional responses, but "He do." is not allowed. Correspondingly, the three-atom chains chlorine-oxygen-hydrogen and oxygen-chlorine-hydrogen are allowed, but have quite different chemistries, whereas chlorine-hydrogen-oxygen is not allowed.

The rules of molecular grammar have been in force as long as atoms have existed, and are ultimately what make brains possible in the first place. It was the brains of early 19th century chemists that expressed the modern concept of the atom in order to rationalize the results of contemporary experiments with matter. Later in the 19th century, other brains pieced together the basic rules of molecular grammar after successes and failures to forge matter with atomic precision.

This process continues in the 21st century, and there is no end in sight. There are many rules of molecular grammar that we do not yet know, let alone understand. Truth be told, our current "understanding" of even the basics of molecular grammar is speculative at best.

This brings me to a common criticism of Pinker's writing - that it is too speculative. As a careful reader observes, he makes no attempt to disguise his speculations. However, he is refreshingly clear about how they can be tested experimentally. This is what he means by his sardonic comment that "old ideas were too vapid to be wrong".

Speaking of old ideas, the chemists who created the language of modern chemistry from ancient root words, such as atomos (Greek for "uncuttable"), had many critics too. Physicists derisively wondered if such wild speculations were fume-induced hallucinations, since none of the observable properties of matter (at the time) required the atomic hypothesis.

True enough. Such experiments, and the ensuing philosophical "conversions", would come later. But to a chemist, or any 19th century Pinker, how matter came to be (in other words, how it was synthesized) is just as important as what its measurable properties are. For such an ultrarational person, you needed the atomic hypothesis and a molecular grammar then, just as you do now.

If language is in our genes, then perhaps our funny bone is "humerus" in more ways than one.

On the Web:

More Chemical Eye On... by Preston MacDougall


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

Publish A Letter on SitNews
        Read Letters/Opinions
Submit A Letter to the Editor

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska