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

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

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
  • Linguist


    There *is* no “Chomskyan idea that rules associate in certain sets”, especially where the rules in question concern WORD order (rather than the more abstract structural relations that Chomsky and his colleagues do concern themselves with).

    The study in Nature has literally nothing at all to do with anything Chomsky has argued for.

    Now this article may be interesting for other reasons — see Mark Liberman’s thoughtful discussion today in Language Log, for example. But the anti-Chomsky spin placed on the article is just nuts (though it’s a good way to get publicity for a study on language). The results have logically nothing to do with Chomsky or with Universal grammar. As a linguist, I cringe at this sort of nonsense — especially since it seems to come around every year or so (Google “Piraha”, for example).

  • Anon Linguist

    Ditto, linguist.

    I think this study is attempting to falsify the existence of universal parameters. But Chomsky’s principles and parameters theory argues for *parametric variation*, which the study finds. Ergo this study is not falsifying anything Chomskian.

    Also, reading the authors’ quotations, they seem to be on a mission to explain surface (not abstract) linguistic variation as “cultural”. But what is “cultural”? It means nothing. They also dismiss Pinkerian modularity of mind and suggest the mind is “far more complex” the modularity hypothesis assumes. How exactly? They do not explain.

    A welcome study but I’m not impressed.

  • Stevan Harnad


    (1) The Dunn et al article in Nature is not about language evolution (in the Darwinian sense); it is about language history.

    (2) Universal grammar (UG) is a complex set of rules, discovered by Chomsky and his co-workers. UG turns out to be universal (i.e., all known language are governed by its rules) and its rules turn out to be unlearnable on the basis of what the child says and hears, so they must be inborn in the human brain and genome.

    (3) Although UG itself is universal, it has some free parameters that are set by learning. Word-order (subject-object vs. object-subject) is one of those learned parameters. The parameter-settings themselves differ for different language families, and are hence, of course, not universal, but cultural.

    (4) Hence the Dunn et al results on the history of word-order are not, as claimed, refutations of UG.

    Harnad, S. (2008) Why and How the Problem of the Evolution of Universal Grammar (UG) is Hard. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31: 524-525

  • Peter

    could you please direct us to a paper/book that *explicitly* lists *exactly* what is the “complex set of rules” of UG that Chomsky is claimed to have “discovered”? As far as I know, there is none. Note the stress on the words “explicit” and “exact”.


  • Linguist

    Harnad overstates his case. Linguistics is an active field in which there are many open questions. So there is no complete, explicit, exact set of rules out there that answers all our questions and solves all our problems in linguistics. Neither Chomsky nor any other linguist would claim otherwise.

    But there are explicit,exact proposals about subdomains of UG: for example, Cinque’s theory (modified in a subsequent paper by the linguists Abels and Neeleman) of Greenberg’s “Universal 20”, which governs the order of adjectives, determiners (e.g. “the”, “a”, “this”), numerals and the noun in Noun Phrases across languages of every family. Googling for “universal 20” and one of the names mentioned above will get you to those papers.

    If you want a less technical book for non-specialists that tells you something about what has been discovered about language variation more generally, I recommend Mark Baker’s “Atoms of Language”. If you’re looking for someone’s explicit, exact computer program that models this kind of system across a broader domain, look at the work of Sandiway Fong among others. For an explicit model of the acquisition process in this vein, Charles Yang’s research is a good place to start.

  • Observer

    Over on Language Log, a lengthy discussion of this paper was summed up amusingly as follows:

    ” This is an article:

    1. whose data are bad,
    2. whose analysis is dodgy,
    3. whose grip on relevant literature is weak, and
    3. whose conclusions are non-sequiturs.

    Those details aside, it’s a good paper.”

  • Peter

    that is a far more reasonable position, thank you.

    Ps – BTW, against Cinque’s theory, see Dryer’s “On the order of demonstrative, numeral, adjective, and noun: an alternative to Cinque” 2009. Ms.

  • Observer

    It’s worth returning to Langage Log ( to read the substamtial commentary that’s accumulated. It now appears that their citations of relevant opposing literature consist of someone’s interview with Chomsky, a popular press book on linguistics and a single sentence in one serious book, and that none of these “sources” are even relevant to the test that the authors claim they carried out.

    Reading Greenhill’s replies is also entertaining, in a pretty depressing way. Basically, “yup, you’re right, so what?”

    Imagine Nature publishing a paper in chemistry or neuroscience with citations like that. Imagine them tolerating such a thing.

  • Michelle

    What, exactly, defines a “common cultural background” for the authors of the study? The “common culture” they seem to find have no more in common than say, those of the British and the French. Word order in English and French are quite different. And how does the process of acquiring languages in areas where cultures overlap affect word order choices? My bilingual (Spanish/English) students, when learning French, often try to apply English word order to French rather than Spanish, even though Spanish and French are more closely related. In their minds second languages have a certain word order, many don’t automatically see the relationship between Spanish and French.


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