“Words and Rules” Steven Pinker

Chapters 1 & 2: The Infinite Library & Dissection by Linguistics

“The mind analyzes every stretch of language as some mixture of memorized chunks and rule-governed assemblies.”

Language: A tool of communication but also a medium for poetry, wordplay, etc.

Words: A set of memorized arbitrary pairing between a sound and a meaning. Words are particular sounds used to convey a particular idea.

Grammar: a code or set of rules that specifies how words are managed in different combinations.

Idioms: Phrases whose meanings cannot be computed out of their parts.

Collocation and clichés: strings of words remembered as wholes and often used together.

Phonology proper: Rules that edit the string of vowels and consonants composing a word.

Phonetics: Rules that convert the string into actual sounds or muscle movements.

“Words tell us a story, they too are history”


In the 17th century writers began to leave out the vowels in the suffixes of many words. That’s why they used an apostrophe in the place of the vowel. Benjamin Franklin many times avoids the vowel for a ‘ sign in his autobiography.

In modern English, 28 verbs don’t change while used in past tense.

Light verbs: are less filling than the ordinary ones. They don’t have a meaning that stays with them, they take dozens of meanings when they combine with other words. E.x: come, go, do take, have, let, get, put, stand.

When a word is composed of irregular verbs, the past progressive, etc. is the same in the composed words as it is with the word/verb used by itself.

Chapter 3: Broken Telephone

Progressive suffix “ing” = 100% regular

Possessive ‘s = 100% regular.

In both Greek and Latin,  verbs ought to be learned by memorizing the irregular forms.

*Common mistake people make: saying “important piece of data”, or, “this data is important”… Data is the plural of datum! So people, should say: “the datum is important”, or, “the data are important”.

Singular: Agendum, candelabrum, insignium, propagandum

Plural: Agenda, candelabras, insignia, propaganda.

Most commonly used verbs: Be, have, do, go.

When there are double vowels in a word, the past tense eliminates one and adds “t” or “d”. Ex. Keep-kept, sleep-slept.

Language has been changing for many reasons. One of Pinker suggestions is that irregular verbs evolved because many verbs sounded the same in all their tenses. The most commonly used verbs are irregular. *

Chapter 4: In Single Combat

Linguist theories: associations vs. memorization.

Theory of associationism (from the school of thought of empiricism): The mind connects things that are experienced together or that look alike and generalizes to new objects according to their resemblance to know ones.

-All the irregular verbs except go-went and be-was, share material with their stems.

-Computers are not very good at guessing words used in speech because the pronunciation of many words change when the words around them “influence” them.

-165 verbs share only 3 rules

-Irregular inflection depends on memorized words or words similar to them

Chapter 5: Word Nerds

-Every time one opens a newspaper one will find: One word with un- that one has never seen before, one with –ness, and one with –ly.

-Spell-pronunciation difference of words (page 98):

A moth is not a moth in mother,

Nor both in bother, broth in brother,

And here is not a match for there,

Nor dear and fear form bear and pear,

And then there’s dose and rose and lose

Just look them up-and goose and choose,,

And cork and work and card and ward,

And font and front and word and sword,

And do and go and thwart and cart—

Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

-Irregular verbs are much more common than regular ones

-Philology: The study of old texts.

-The mind (brain) looks up for a word to conjugate it or to look for its past, etc. On page 131: “From your brain’s point of view, no verb is either regular or irregular until it has been looked up in memory and discovered to have, or to lack, a special past-tense form.”


-Irregular verbs are located in different places in the mind (as a separate morpheme with similar meaning), but when they mean the same (ex. go-went) they are connected in some way. “That suggest (an experiment mentioned in page 134) that the mind represents gave not as a word that just happens to be similar in meaning to give but as a separate morpheme that represents the verb give in the past tense.”

Reflexion: By learning as much as we can about language, its rules and how it works in the brain, we also learn a great deal of how the brain works, about evolution and the changes that we have had. Language is history, a window to our past and to our future.

Chapter 6: Of Mice and Men

-When a new word is formed from an old irregular word by prefixing, the new word stays irregular. Ex. Eat-overeat (overate).

-On page 151: “New nouns constantly are being formed by compounding a word onto an existing noun. When the input is irregular, so is the output: bogeymen, not bogeymen, superwomen not superowomans; also muskoxen, stepchildren, milkteeth.”

-Cannonical roots (roots for short): Ordinary words, like dog and walk unadorned by prefixes and suffixes. They are stored in a particular way in memory.

-Onomatopeic verbs and nouns are regular.

-Quit and cost are French.

-Making nouns and adjectives nouns: “English is notorious for converting roots from other categories into verbs”. `Verbing’ nouns and adjectives is something that English speakers do a lot. An example of this is access, it was a thing and it became a verb.

-In English the head of a phrase is on the left (Mother-in-law). That is why for the plural, people don’t know if it is mothers or laws. It should be mothers because that is the root of the word, but it is a debate.

– Bahuvrihi compound: words without head. “How does a word lose its head? One way is to be a compound that doesn’t refer to the kind of thing indicated by its rightmost word. Instead it refers to something else, which merely has or does something to the kind of thing indicated by the rightmost word.” E.x. workman, lazybones.

Chapter 7: Kids Say the Darnedest Things

Kids stop making the generalizing errors of adding –ed or –s to every single verb and noun because while gathering experience, they also save memories of the irregular forms. When they listen “went” many times, “memory improves by repetition” and when memory improves, their grammar does too!

The less popular irregular verbs are much more inclined to get lost or regularized because people don`t often hear them. It is important to note that adults also regularize uncommon irregular verbs.

Maybe kids make creating errors because, according to Rumelhart and McClelland: “Children might analogize from words they already know. They might say holded because hold sounds like fold, mold, and scold, whose past-tense forms are folded, molded, and scolded.”

Chapter 8: The Horrors of the German Language

No one is biologically disposed to speak a particular language. I really liked that Pinker points out htat language is historical because it has behold stories of humanity, their migrations, conquest, innovations, and daily struggles to make themselves understood, for centuries. Throughout the rest of the chapter Pinker compares and contrasts German with English.

Chapter 9: The Black Box

Disease (when brain damaged):

  • Anomia: Damage to the posterior (back) parts of the brain. They have problems in their mental dictionary. They don’t remember the name of some stuff. But their grammar stays fine.
  • Agrammatism: Not problems in mental dictionary, but in grammar. Location of damage: front of the brain.
  • –The mental dictionary is probably arranged in meanings but not in pronunciation or likeliness of the world, unlike our written dictionaries (gravy and grave are not stored closely in the mind, even if they sound alike, their meaning is totally different). Irregular and regular verbs are not stored in the same part of the brain, they depend on different sets of areas of the brain (look down for =1).
  • Neurodegenerative diseases: The result of genes, aging, viruses, autoimmune attacks, environmental toxins and unknown causes. E.x:
  • -Alzheimer: 10% of people over 65; 50% of people over 85.
  • Two major memory systems: 1) Facts: knowing that; 2) Skills: knowing how.

1.) FACTS: Declarative memory: needs the hippocampus (at temporal lobe). The cortex permanently stores memories at temporal and parietal lobes. These last two are the hardest hit by the Alzheimer’s.

2) SKILLS:  Procedural memory: Underlies motor skills (walking) and cognitive and perceptual skills. This is located in the basal ganglia in the cerebrum.

The end of this chapter talks about Consilience, and Pinker expresses his support to Edward O. Wilson. I can´t believe that everything is so connected! “An insight into a phenomenon can come from any direction”.

Chapter 10: A Digital Mind in an Analogue World.

The importance of studying verbs (irregular and regular) is that you get a more profound understanding of language. By getting a better understanding of the later one also gets a better understanding of the mind and how it works. Pinker has been saying throughout his book that the ingredients of language are memorized links -arranged in many different ways- between sound and meaning (words) and operations that find the meaning of words and combine them (rules). Then, he mentioned VERBS, and the fact that people use the regular rule when they can’t find an “irregularity” in their mental dictionary. Even in irregular verbs, meaning of the words (even if they look or are spelled completely different) are arranged together. This leads us to think that the brain is a “complicated network off similarities overlapping and crisscrossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities in detail.”


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