Is Grammar More Cultural Than Universal? Study Challenges Chomsky’s Theory

By Veronique Greenwood | April 15, 2011 10:43 am

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Researchers traced word rules across more than 3,000 languages.

What’s the News: Noam Chomsky, look out: If language has any universal grammar, it’s hiding really well, conclude the authors of a recent Nature study. The idea that all human languages share some underlying structure, regardless of where or when they evolved, an influential idea that nonetheless has drawn some controversy since Chomsky popularized it in the 1950s. One part of natural-grammar theory is the idea that certain word order rules (whether the verb or the noun goes first and whether a preposition goes before or after a noun, for example) will always associate together, regardless of which language they occur in.

But when cognitive scientists and a biologist teamed up to see whether there were shared patterns in word order across four large language families, they found almost none. A common cultural background, they found, was the best predictor for how a language orders words.

How the Heck:

  • Applying biology techniques to linguistics, the team built an evolutionary tree of word order. They treated word order as a trait, just as biologists might treat eye color or hair color.
  • They looked to see whether one word order rule was always connected with another, testing the Chomskian idea that rules associate in certain sets. Under this hypothesis, “the setting ‘heads first’ will cause a language both to place verbs before objects (‘kick the ball’), and prepositions before nouns (‘into the goal’),” the authors explain.
  • Analyzing four large families that account for more than a third of the world’s languages (Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu, and Uto-Aztecan), the team found 19 correlations between pairs of word rules. But only four of them appeared in more than one family, indicating that as far as word order is concerned, this aspect of universal grammar doesn’t seem to hold up.

Reference: Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Stephen C. Levinson, Russell D. Gray. Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature, 2011; doi:10.1038/nature09923

(via ArsTechnica)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain
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