Is culture or cognition really responsible for language structure?

Apr 14, 2011 by Deborah Braconnier weblog

(PhysOrg.com) -- Linguistic study has been, for many years, divided into two main theories - those following the belief of Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar and that of Joseph Greenberg’s linguistic universal. However, a new study published in Nature by Russell Gray from the University of Auckland shows that neither of these ideas is shown and that language is lineage-specific and not governed by any universals.

While Chomsky followers believe that humans are born with an innate ability for and that grammatical principles are hardwired into the brain and dictate a universal grammar. Joseph Greenberg utilizes a more empirical approach and looks are word order shared by languages.

Gray and his colleagues utilized phylogenetic methods to examine the four major language families (Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu, and Uto-Aztecan) and eight different word-order features. They began by building language family trees from basic vocabulary data to use for testing hypotheses and links between them. They took the different word-order features and mapped them on to the language trees to look for evidence of co-evolution.

Their major finding was that features of word-order correlate in many different ways that vary between language families. Even when the researchers found common traits within two different families, they could show that each family arrived at these traits in a different way. Because the linkages are family-specific, it suggests that language structure is not ruled by an innate ability for language or a desire to create a specific word order. Results show that language structure evolves through exploration and is a product of cultural evolution.

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More information: Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals, Nature (2011) doi:10.1038/nature09923

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User comments : 2

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cdt
5 / 5 (2) Apr 14, 2011
"language structure is not ruled by an innate ability for language or a desire to create a specific word order".

This is one of the worst articles on language I've seen. Nobody thinks language structure is ruled entirely by innate ability, but anyone who knows anything at all about linguistics comes to see very quickly that possible structures across languages are limited, and that there is a large range of phenomena that are universal across languages. Created languages that violate universal constraints come out as unlearnable in the standard way. Also, I've never heard anyone claim that language structure is ruled by a desire to create a specific word order. Indeed, desires don't seem to shape language much at all. Unless it's desire to attract someone of the opposite sex through nifty linguistic manipulation.
StevanHarnad
5 / 5 (2) Apr 16, 2011
LINGUISTIC NON SEQUITURS

(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 Sci