Hard-wired Grammar


By Philologos

Published March 04, 2005, issue of March 04, 2005.
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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.

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