13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 54

Rose is a rose is a rose . . .

Dot Wordsworth

WORDS AND RULES: THE INGREDIENTS OF LANGUAGE by Steven Pinker Weidenfeld, 114.99, pp. 348

Steven Pinker is the Oliver Sacks of language, only, instead of men mistaking their wives for hats, he finds people with damage to the junction of their parietal and temporal lobes, who can't quite get the names for things. One such anomie tries to remember what to call a box of matches:

Waitresses. Waitrixies. A backland and another bank. For bandicks er bandicks I think they are. I believe they're zandicks, I'm sorry, but they're called Hitters landocks.

My husband has just told me that he thinks I must have a lesion on that crucial word- storing junction. Men can be so cruel, including Professor Pinker, that curly- haired, white-smiled media star who lec- tures and writes in a showbizzy, snazzy, jazzy register of speech. He has an unkind aversion to newspaper words columnists, including those of the lank-haired, house- wifely kind. I don't mind.

As an act of bravado he has written a book on the most boring subject in the world: irregular verbs. The very phrase is redolent of cabbage and pencil sharpen- ings. Here is his thesis:

There are two tricks, words and rules. They work by different principles, are learned and used in different ways, and may even reside in different parts of the brain.

You might say `So what?', even after hav- ing lapped up Professor Pinker's 300 pages, but there is much fun on the way. The irregular verbs in question are mostly those in English: ring, rang rung; forget, forgot, forgotten or even hit, hit, hit.. There aren't many of them, and they are hard to cate- gorise, but they include many of the verbs we use most. By contrast the regular past tense of English verbs merely has the suffix '-ed' tacked on in a grammatically mechan- ical way, so that we can predict the past tense of a never-before-heard verb such as wug (she wugs today, and yesterday she wugged), just as we can give the plural of the unheard-of noun wug (one wug, a cou- ple of wugs).

The mental rule-forming element, on the other hand, is operated in one part of the brain; the irregular verb forms are stored in another part, along with a vast and arbi- trary lexicon of words. This claim can be demonstrated by testing out people with entertaining varieties of brain damage or genetic shortcomings. Forget to duck and bang goes your grammar; a more posterior blood clot and your vocab goes to pot. Pretty, witty Pinker races on with such enthusiasm that the reader no sooner thinks 'Well, I'm not sure about that, but let us grant it for the sake of argument' than she is whizzed along to the next joky examination of the cute things kids say or the peculiar habits of the Germanic linguis- tic community.

So for example we find this: 'The word is based on a memorised arbitrary pairing between a sound and a meaning.' I'm not happy about that, but let's read on:

The meaning of a word [rose] is a link to an entry in the person's mental encyclopaedia, which captures the person's concept of a rose. For convenience we can symbolise it with a picture [here follows a picture of a flower].

Well, I'm even less happy about that. Have you got a picture of symbolise or with?

And so it goes on, until on page 268 we detect an unusual tone of defensiveness, when Professor Pinker says of the dear old irregular verbs:

This topic straight out of the humanities is being probed with the cutting-edge tools of molecular genetics and imaging of the brain. Some people fear this kind of development as a crass 'reductionism'.

Perhaps they do, never mind about the cut- ting-edge tools. But that business of resid- ing in different parts of the brain has a dualist Cartesian air about it, reminiscent of the old cogito-ergonomist's wild and silly speculation that the soul is knotted onto the body at the pineal gland. And if Profes- sor Pinker is less reductionist than Locke or Ockham, he really does seem to be a bit of a reductionist, at least when he equates mind with brain. I am happy to suppose I store words in one part of my cortex, but Are you sure you're happy in our relationship Trevor?' not no happy to think my mind is a machine, any more than I suppose that the real Dot Wordsworth is an electro-chemi- cal lumber-room.

Even on a merely linguistic level Profes- sor Pinker says some awkward things. He criticises Swift as a linguistic stick-in-the- mud for saying:

What does your lordship think of the words drudg'd, disturb'd, rebuk'd, fledg'd, and a thousand others everywhere to be met with in prose as well as verse? Where by leaving out a vowel to save a syllable, we form so jar- ring a sound and so difficult to utter, that I have often wondered how it could ever obtain.

And yet Professor Pinker himself calls the word edited 'an uneuphonious tongue- twister'. I wondered whatever he could mean at first; edited is perfectly simple to pronounce. Then I realised that the Pinker idiolect probably gives the three vowels of edited the same value and the three conso- nants the same value. Nothing wrong with that, of course,

Naturally Professor Pinker speaks a modified Montreal English. I can't say I always find it beautiful: 'Philosophical lan- guage has been analysed insightfully by Borges'; 'One boy, AZ, showcases the specificity of Grammatical SLI'. And some of his repetitions presume our brain lesions are more serious than we had realised: 'The hockey team in Toronto is called the Maple Leafs' (p. 110); 'Toronto has a hock- ey team called the Maple Leafs' (p. 149); 'We have the Maple Leafs high-sticking in Toronto' (p. 165); 'When a Maple Leaf joins his teammates on the ice, they are the Maple Leafs' (p. 172); 'the Toronto Maple Leafs, a collection of individuals quite unlike a mass of foliage'. We get the point: it's leafs, you see, not leaves.

Is the trusting reader right to let herself be carried away in the strong arms of Steven Pinker? I think on occasion he proves himself a deceiver. 'Before Samuel Johnson standardised English orthogra- phy,' he writes, 'people spelled more or less as they pleased, trying to capture the sounds of language as they heard them.' That simply is not true. The printers of books were far more influential orthographists than Johnson, and, before he was born, Dryden and Swift, say, agreed on almost all spellings, some of them not phonetic but (truly or erroneously) etymol- ogising (scissors being a familiar example).

But it is the neurological guided ramble that I enjoy in the company of the athletic Prof. Where, I wonder, do we store poems learned by heart in childhood (which we never forget), or our characteristic laughs? And I've just read in the Times Literary Supplement that the 19th-century English neurologist John Hughlings Jackson believed that obscene exclamations reside in the right hemisphere of the brain. Can that be true? Come on, Professor Pinker, time to plug in your MRI again and start probing.