Why do compounds containing regular plurals, such as rats-infested, sound so much worse than corresponding compounds containing irregular plurals, such as mice-infested? Berent and Pinker (2007) reported five experiments showing that this theoretically important effect hinges on the morphological structure of the plurals, not their phonological properties, as had been claimed by Haskell, MacDonald, and Seidenberg (2003). In this note we reply to a critique by these authors. We show that the connectionist model they invoke to explain the data has nothing to do with compounding but exploits fortuitous properties of adjectives, and that our experimental results disconfirm explicit predictions the authors had made. We also present new analyses which answer the authors’ methodological objections. We conclude that the interaction of compounding with regularity is a robust effect, unconfounded with phonology or semantics.
When people speak, they often insinuate their intent indirectly rather than stating it as a bald proposition. Examples include sexual come-ons, veiled threats, polite requests, and concealed bribes. We propose a three-part theory of indirect speech, based on the idea that human communication involves a mixture of cooperation and conflict. First, indirect requests allow for plausible deniability, in which a cooperative listener can accept the request, but an uncooperative one cannot react adversarially to it. This intuition is sup- ported by a game-theoretic model that predicts the costs and benefits to a speaker of direct and indirect requests. Second, language has two functions: to convey information and to negotiate the type of relationship holding between speaker and hearer (in particu- lar, dominance, communality, or reciprocity). The emotional costs of a mismatch in the assumed relationship type can create a need for plausible deniability and, thereby, select for indirectness even when there are no tangible costs. Third, people perceive language as a digital medium, which allows a sentence to generate common knowledge, to propagate a message with high fidelity, and to serve as a reference point in coordination games. This feature makes an indirect request qualitatively different from a direct one even when the speaker and listener can infer each other’s intentions with high confidence.
English speakers disfavor compounds containing regular plurals compared to irregular ones. Haskell, MacDonald and Seidenberg (2003) attribute this phenomenon to the rarity of compounds containing words with the phonological properties of regular plurals. Five experiments test this proposal. Experiment 1 demonstrated that novel regular plurals (e.g., loonks-eater) are disliked in compounds compared to irregular plurals with illicit (hence less frequent) phonological patterns (e.g., leevk-eater, plural of loovk). Experiments 2–3 found that people show no dispreference for compounds containing nouns that merely sound like regular plurals (e.g., hose-installer vs. pipe-installer). Experiments 4–5 showed a robust effect of morphological regularity when phonological familiar- ity was controlled: Compounds containing regular plural nonwords (e.g., gleeks- hunter, plural of gleek) were disfavored relative to irregular, phonologically-iden- tical, plurals (e.g., breex-container, plural of broox). The dispreference for regular plurals inside compounds thus hinges on the morphological distinction between irregular and regular forms and it is irreducible to phonological familiarity.
This paper proposes a new analysis of indirect speech in the framework of game theory, social psychology, and evolutionary psychology. It builds on the theory of Grice, which tries to ground indirect speech in pure rationality (the demands of e‰cient communication between two cooperating agents) and on the Politeness Theory of Brown and Levinson, who proposed that people cooperate not just in exchanging data but in saving face (both the speaker’s and the hearer’s). I suggest that these theories need to be supple- mented because they assume that people in conversation always cooperate. A reflection on how a pair of talkers may have goals that conflict as well as coincide requires an examination of the game-theoretic logic of plausible denial, both in legal contexts, where people’s words may be held against them, and in everyday life, where the sanctions are social rather than judi- cial. This in turn requires a theory of the distinct kinds of relationships that make up human social life, a consideration of a new role for common knowledge in the use of indirect speech, and ultimately the paradox of ra- tional ignorance, where we choose not to know something relevant to our interests.
"A display of fiercely intricate intelligence and nobody with the least interest in language should miss reading it."—The Times (London)
This New York Times bestseller is an exciting and fearless investigation of language from the author of Better Angels of Our Nature and The Sense of Style "Curious, inventive, fearless, naughty."—New York Times Book Review
Bestselling author Steven Pinker possesses that rare combination of scientific aptitude and verbal eloquence that enables him to provide lucid explanations of deep and powerful ideas. His previous books - including the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Blank Slate - have catapulted him into the limelight as one of today's most important popular science writers. In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker presents a fascinating look at how our words explain our nature. Considering scientific questions with examples from everyday life, The Stuff of Thought is a brilliantly crafted and highly readable work that will appeal to fans of everything from The Selfish Gene and Blink to Eats, Shoots & Leaves.