Historical context guides language development

Apr 14, 2011

Not only do we humans enjoy talking -- and talking a lot -- we also do so in very different ways: about 6,000 languages are spoken today worldwide. How this wealth of expression developed, however, largely remains a mystery. A group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, has now found that word-orders in languages from different language families evolve differently.

This 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 in the brain. Rather, sentence structure is determined by the historical context in which a develops.

Linguists want to understand how languages have become so diverse and what constraints language evolution is subject to. To this end, they search for recurring patterns in language structure. In spite of the enormous variety of sounds and sentence structure patterns, linguistic chaos actually stays within certain limits: individual language patterns repeat themselves. For example, in some languages, the verb is placed at the beginning of the sentence, while with others it is placed in the middle or at the end of the sentence. The formation of words in a given language also follows certain principles.

Michael Dunn and Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for have analysed 301 languages from four major language families: Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu and Uto-Aztecan. The researchers focused on the order of the 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. In this way, the researchers wanted to find out whether the position of the verb has other syntactic consequences: if the verb precedes the object for example ("The player kicks the ball"), is the preposition simultaneously placed before the noun ("into the goal")? Such a pattern is observed in many languages, but is it an inevitable feature of how languages develop?

"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 in the other two language families. The researchers never found the same pattern in word-order across all language families.

Since the 1950s, the American linguist Noam Chomsky has been defending the view that there are universal similarities between all languages. He claims that this is due to an innate language faculty that functions according to the same principle in any human being. On the other hand, the linguist Joseph Greenberg does not put forward the existence of a genetically determined "universal grammar", but does speak of a "universal word-order", whereby the general mechanisms of language-processing in the brain accordingly determine word-order and sentence structure. These new results are inconsistent with both of these views. "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.

The next step for the scientists is to examine the evolutionary processes governing language structure in other language families, as well as to examine the diversity of other linguistic features within this evolutionary perspective.

Explore further: Physicists create tool to foresee language destruction impact and thus prevent it

More information: Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Stephen C. Levinson, Russell D. Gray Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order "universals" Nature, Advance Online Publication, 13 April 2011

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RobertKarlStonjek
5 / 5 (1) Apr 14, 2011
Researchers tend to choose the common or popular usage of a language and declare that as the convention, as if there is only one. Consider a player kicking a ball where in English the verb is in the middle, or is it?
"Kicking is how the player gets the ball into the net" [Verb are the beginning]
"How can the player get the ball into the net without kicking?" [Verb at the end].
"The player kicks the ball into the net" [verb in the middle].
Now let's look at one of the most common statements on the field of play:
"Kick it!!!" [verb at the beginning] "Kick it to me", "Hit the ball" eg as in cricket, baseball...
Now, let's see how easy it is put the verb anywhere but the end of this simple sentence:
"My leg hurts".
One could argue that there is an implicit "me" at the end vis "my leg hurts me" but one could counter with "it is me that my leg hurts".

My conclusion, then, is that in the case of English, the verb can be placed at the beginning, middle or depending on context.
IlliterateGraduate
5 / 5 (1) Apr 14, 2011
Robert, I suppose it is really dependent on what you consider the begining, and whether or not there are multiple verbs.

"How can the player get the ball into the net without kicking?" is actually at the beginning, because the verb is CAN, not kick.... and kicking is acting as a noun.

In English, it seems that the main verb is usually located near the beginning of the sentence, depending on its complexity.

When I was learning Japanese it was really strange. Growing up speaking English and French I was accustomed to rigid structures, but in Japanese, the only word necessary in a sentence is a verb at the end... consequently, I my friends here used to make fun of me for always using unnecessarily long sentences when subject and object were often unnecessary.
cdt
5 / 5 (2) Apr 15, 2011
I've seen claims unsupported by evidence before, but this one seems to be a bit extreme even among those. The study focused on ordering in two domains -- the sentence domain (subject, object verb) and prepositional phrases (preposition, noun phrase). They conclude from this study that Chomsky is wrong to claim that there are universal similarities among languages. Chomsky actually claims that there are mental processed unique to language that operate in all human language, giving rise to a diverse but limited range of variation among human language. He has never claimed that word order correlations are universally restricted. So just how does this study show that Chomsky is wrong? At best it shows that the development of language is influenced by the current state of the language undergoing change, something that is hardly surprising but also not at all incompatible with possible variation being biologically constrained.