cover image The Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker, , read by Dean Olsher. . Penguin Audio, $39.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-14-314258-4

Unless you have a reasonably good background in linguistics, you’ll find this excellent book much easier to read than to listen to. Olsher is not to blame; he reads clearly and at a (slightly rapid) conversational speed. Pinker aims for the educated lay reader, using wit and popular metaphor to clarify his meanings and bring abstruse linguistic concepts to life. But his sentences are dense; you need to reread them and think them through. And the jargon, though clearly defined, requires time and thought to absorb: “Though hypernyms are not really examples of polysemy the way metonyms are, their use in emotionally tinged speech is another illustration of how choice among words can make a psychological difference.” Such sentences are followed by clarifying illustrations, but they require cogitation—work that is well rewarded by a deeper and more complex understanding of language as a window into the mind. The chapter on the semantics of swearing is particularly fun and enlightening. In every culture swear words concern gods, diseases, excretions and sex, and Pinker tells us why. A person with some knowledge of linguistic theory will enjoy this audio enormously; a person without it will be enriched and delighted by the book, but have great difficulties with the audio version. Simultaneous release with the Viking hardcover (Reviews, May 21). (Sept.)