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Researchers Take a Chomp out of Chomsky
May 2, 2011 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on Researchers Take a Chomp out of Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, probably the most influential linguist of our age, thinks that language development is universal, but researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics looking at the evolution of word order found that languages are evolving in not-so-universal ways.

“The finding contradicts the common understanding that word-order develops in accordance with a set of universal rules, applicable to all languages. Researchers have concluded that languages do not primarily follow innate rules of language processing in the brain.”

Since the 1950s, Noam Chomsky has been saying that there are universal similarities among all languages, claiming that “this is due to an innate language faculty that functions according to the same principle in any human being.” Other arguments, such as those advanced by Joseph Greenberg, are more modest about claims of “universal grammar,” but argue for a “universal word-order,” which is what makes the words go ’round inside human heads.

Instead researchers Michael Dunn and Stephen Levinson discovered that different sentence structures in different languages have more to do with historical accident than any tabula rasa mental spreadsheet awaiting linguistic upload inside our heads.

The two looked at the word structure of 301 languages from four major language families: Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu and Uto-Aztecan. They looked at the word order of different sentence parts, such as object-verb, preposition-noun, genitive- noun or relative clause-noun, and whether their position in the sentence influenced the other parts of the sentence.

“Our study shows that different processes occur in different language families,” says Michael Dunn. “The evolution of language does not follow one universal set of rules.” For example, the verb-object pattern influences the preposition-noun pattern in the Austronesian and Indo-European languages, but not in the same way, and not at all in the other two language families. The researchers never found the same pattern in word-order across all language families.

“Our study suggests that cultural evolution has much more influence on language development than universal factors. Language structure is apparently not so much biologically determined as it is shaped by its ancestry,” explains Stephen Levinson.

Chomsky’s thoughts on language have dominated the field for so long that it’s no surprise that they are beginning to look as long in the tooth as a Smilodon to other researchers interested in the evolution of language.  If you are interested, I found a great Cliff Notes-like Powerpoint-type site that reduces the lifetime of thinking by the world’s most renowned linguist into about 600 words, which is just about right for me, at least until the hand-puppet version comes out.


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