Unnatural acts



Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle

I still remember reading Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct in the old reading room of the Suzzallo Library. It was in 1994, and I was well along in a PhD program studying language and literature at the University of Washington in Seattle. The book takes as  its subject one of those basic questions we have been asking together this semester–in this case, how it is we might learn, speak, and understand language. At the time, I had been studying the philosophy of language, and was also reading writers working with the assumption that language is a cultural artifact that we learn, as Pinker put it, “the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works” (18). But as Pinker would argue, a three-year old is “a grammatical genius,” and a “preschooler’s tacit knowledge of grammar is more sophisticated than the thickest style manual or the most state-of-the-art computer language system, and the same applies to all healthy human beings, even the notorious syntax-fracturing professional athlete and the, you know, like, inarticulate teenage skateboarder” (19). As a recovering professional athlete and, further back, a professional skateboarder, I did not take any offense. For I found myself engaged by a more biologically grounded theory of language acquisition written by a cognitive neuroscientist with a knack for speaking about language to anyone interested in how language works. Little did I know at the time that with two children on the way I would get a first-hand education in language as a kind of instinct that is hard wired into the human genome.

“Writing is an unnatural act.” The sentence that opens chapter 2 of the The Sense of Style (derived from a passage in Darwin’s 1871 The Descent of Man) appears in the earlier book as well. “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak,” Darwin says, “as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.”  Writing is also above all–and this is where the plot thickens, as we discussed today–“an act of pretense.” What we talked about was the problem all writers face: we must imagine our audience. We must create a clear conception (a fiction) of who we might be speaking to (or who, as Pinker puts it, we are pretending to speak to when we commit words to a page). Your recipients are both invisible and inscrutable, even if you define them as a group. There is no body (no sparkle in the eyes, no gesturing with the hands, no vocal range, no posture). But there is mind. And so we are back at Pinker’s simple definition of style: “the effective use of words to engage the human mind” (2). All of this might even take you back to our earlier question about the author and the persona that we cannot help but make whenever we are writing ourselves into words.