Hard-wired Grammar

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published March 04, 2005, issue of March 04, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A perennially debated issue in linguistics in recent decades has been the question of just what aspects of language are “hard-wired” into our brains and what aspects are contingent on chance developments affecting specific languages or groups of languages.

Take the basic word order of the simplest sentences that we utter. If you wish to tell someone in English that a man saw a rabbit, you will say, “A man saw a rabbit” — that is, you will start with the subject of the sentence, “man”; follow it with the verb, “saw,” and end with the object, “rabbit.” Yet this is far from a universal rule. In Turkish, for example, while the subject comes first, the object precedes the verb, so speakers will say, “A man a rabbit saw.” On the other hand, in Tagalog, the major language of the Philippines, you would say, “Saw a man a rabbit,” starting the sentence with the verb.

In theory, there are six different ways of ordering the three elements of subject (S), verb (V) and object (O) in a simple sentence: SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OSV and OVS. In practice, however, the last three of these are extremely rare or nonexistent. It would be hard to find the language in which, when it is the man who is doing the seeing, speakers favor “Saw a rabbit a man,” “A rabbit a man saw” or “A rabbit saw a man.” SVO, SOV and VSO are the word orders the mind prefers — and of these, it might surprise English speakers to learn, SOV, “a man a rabbit saw,” is by far the most common.

But is SOV more common than SVO or VSO because the mind has a natural preference for it, too, or is this simply a matter of chance? One would tend to think that there is no satisfactory way of answering this question — yet now along comes a research project undertaken in Israel, proposing that there is. You can read about it in the February 7 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which appears a paper by two Israeli and two American linguists, titled, “The Emergence of Grammar: Systemic Structure in a New Language.”

Although these four linguists had what might seem an obvious idea, the history of science is full of “obvious” ideas that did not seem obvious at all until someone hit on them. This one had to do with the fact that in Israel’s southern Negev there is a village of 3,500 inhabitants, all members of the Al-Sayyid Bedouin clan, who, having a high rate of congenital deafness, have created their own indigenous sign language. Since this language developed spontaneously, uninfluenced by standard sign language, it occurred to our four investigators that it might offer some clues as to how the mind naturally organizes linguistic elements when left to its own devices.

It can be objected, of course, that since most of the Al-Sayyids are not deaf and speak Arabic to one another, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL, in the PNAS paper) must have been influenced by Arabic and cannot be considered a spontaneous creation. Our researchers concentrated, therefore, on those features of ABSL that are different from spoken Arabic — and, lo and behold, simple sentence structure is one of them: Whereas colloquial Arabic is, like English, a mainly SVO language, ABSL is an SOV language!

As an example of this, the paper’s authors report that a deaf Bedouin, while relating his personal history, made the signs, one after the other, for “money,” “collect,” “build,” “walls” and “doors.” Since ABSL speakers also “punctuate” their utterances by means of facial and body gestures, it was possible to break this into, “[I] money collect. Build. Walls, doors,” which a normal Al-Sayyid then translated as, “I saved money. I built [a house]. It had walls, doors….”

In ABSL, according to the PNAS paper, transitive verbs regularly follow their objects rather than precede them, as in Arabic. The authors state that not only are these findings consistent with the worldwide predominance of SOV languages, but they also agree with the theories of linguist F.J. Newmeyer, whose work, “The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form,” argues on the basis of historical analysis that SOV languages were the world’s earliest.

Needless to say, none of this is absolutely conclusive. One always could claim that the SOV structure of ABSL, despite its unexpected departure from the rules of Arabic, was a product of chance — and in any event, SOV structure cannot be that deeply imprinted in the human mind, since even if there is a tendency to prefer it, SVO and VSO languages are not uncommon. Moreover, if all languages were originally SOV and this is what the mind likes best, why should there later have been any shifts to SVO and VSO at all?

Still, it’s interesting. And it shows what creative linguists can do when they think in original ways.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.