What comes to mind when you picture a man named Murray? Who is he? What does he look like? If you are like most Americans, according to Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, the name Murray calls to mind a middle-aged, middle-class, Jewish man. Names come into and out of fashion, and Murray was a popular name in the first half of the 20th century before it went entirely out of vogue. And so we associate the name Murray with a middle-aged man. But, as Pinker asks in the sixth chapter of his tome, what's in a name? He writes, "The naming of babies, and of things in general, is another example in which a large-scale social phenomenonthe composition of a languageemerges unpredictably out of many individual choices that impinge on one another." And thus choices about what words and names we use serve as a mirror into the human mind at the same time that they heighten the tension between our desire to use language to engage the world and to express our individuality. Pinker's book is a romp through the human mind, language, history, and linguistics, with frequent forays into popular culture: brain candy for the popular science-writing junkie.
Thu., Sept. 20, 7 p.m.