Languages based in culture, not biology

By ERICK SUN | December 13, 1901

Until recently, there were two common schools of thought regarding the development of language.

One maintained that language develops with “innate parameters” during a child’s growth. The other theory maintained that language actually has a set of universal traits that cross many languages. Both these schools of thought had a common view that at least some aspects of language were universal, possibly rooted in how the language center in the human brain is biologically wired.

Contrarily, a new study in the April 2011 issue of Nature claims that in fact the way cultures develop is the key to understanding how languages are formed.

Believers in the generative approach assert that language is formed by setting up parameters. Examples of parameters, according to the authors, include putting verbs before objects (as in “he kicked the ball”) or putting prepositions before nouns (as in “into the goal”).

Consequently, languages change and evolve when younger generations alter these parameters and pass the changes down through the next generation. Proponents of this approach believe that the development and evolution of languages is influenced by genetics and the structure of the human brain.

Another school of thought, called the statistical approach, focuses on recurring traits within different languages. For example when a language puts objects before verbs (as in “he the ball kicked”), it is likely that the language will also use postpositions (as in “the goal into”). Ultimately, the statistical approach agrees with the generative approach that many universal patterns will be found across all languages.

This new study, headed by scientists in Germany and New Zealand, examined language growth within family trees. The researchers compared changes over time in the four most commonly studied language groups — Indo-European (Europe and the Indian subcontinent), Austronesian (Southeast Asia and Oceania), Bantu (Sub-Saharan Africa) and Uto-Aztecan (North America and Mesoamerica).

The authors recognized a major deviation from what the generative and statistical approaches would predict in languages. Instead of arising from universals, language was mainly “lineage-specific” and did not show major patterns across families.

However, there were patterns within families of languages. For example, they found changes between subject and object ordering in relation to verbs only occurred in the Indo-Aztecan family of languages, but not in others.

Languages developed and changed in various forms but were not constrained by universals across families, instead developing on their own within each family of languages. To further explain the independence of language families, even the similarities across families were a result of chance and not from a phylogenetic descent.

So what does all this mean? Linguists aim to find the boundaries that make up language and to understand how it changes. With this newer look at the evolution of language based on family trees, linguists have yet another tool to dissect languages.

More specifically, it offers a new perspective and debunks common beliefs that languages from across the globe can be connected by universal constraints. Instead, this study opens a new door to looking at language development as more of an individualistic phenomenon.

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