Researchers find elements of grammar are hardwired into the human brain.

If you’re human, you can do this. Credit: Ronnie Comeau

In this world nothing is certain but death, taxes and, apparently, syntaxes. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that core elements of grammar—subjects, objects and verbs—are integral parts of human cognition and are present in every language, even those developed in isolation.

Elissa Newport, a cognitive science and linguistics professor at the University of Rochester, and Marie Coppola, a University of Chicago post-doc, studied the sign systems of three deaf young adults in Nicaragua who had previously had no contact with a deaf community. They found all three had integrated the complicated, formal ideas of subjects, objects and verbs into their languages, even though no one had taught them language.

“There’s something about the way the human brain works that leads us to construct communication systems in particular ways, around the world,” Newport said. “And we’re the only species who does this: If you look at animals, even monkeys that are very close to us, or chimps, their communication systems, their vocal calls, are very simple.”

Coppola showed the three subjects pictures and short films and had them describe what was happening in each visual representation. She and Newport analyzed the descriptions to determine whether the home sign languages had a set grammatical structure.

They found that each subject had a unique grammar (different basic word order) but that each communication system had structure that allowed for the expression of complex ideas. Interestingly, none of the subjects used Spanish grammar, even though all of their parents gestured with a Spanish word order.

“Each of these people has developed a structured communication system,” Newport said. “You can do that sort of thing if you’re human, even when you aren’t being tutored by someone who already has a structured system.”

Newport said the three home sign languages studied had all integrated the complex idea of “subject,” which she defined as the “main argument of a sentence”—a formal notion that is somewhat difficult to pinpoint. Despite the shaky definition, all of the test subjects fully grasped this idea and used word order to differentiate between descriptions such as “the boy hit the girl” and “the girl hit the boy.”

The new study expands on the work of psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow, who found that young deaf children with hearing, non-signing families develop a home sign language much like the language children speak during the early stages of learning. They have consistent word order and combine signs to form grammatical sentences, even though what their parents sign back does not have consistent grammar.

In order to study home signing adults, Coppola had to travel to Nicaragua, where many deaf children grow up totally isolated from the country’s deaf community and, therefore, any language they could learn.

University of Maryland linguist and biologist David Poeppel said Copolla’s methods are a clever way of studying language acquisition.

“It’s like having a little organism in the lab where you can watch certain things grow because these are still somewhat isolated communities,” he said. “Home sign is a very interesting and special kind of experimental preparation that allows you to test somewhat quirky properties, because it’s just internally generated. The properties it has can’t be attributed to any stuff that you might figure out from the environment.”

Poeppel said the results of this study wade into a raging linguistic debate: One side argues that through complex statistical calculations, our brains derive grammatical categories from linguistic input. The other side, whom Poeppel jokingly called “the good guys,” believes that these categories are part of an innate structure in the brain. He said the ability of these isolated signers to intuit the notion of a subject is evidence for the second camp’s hypothesis.

“To find evidence for that kind of mental representation in a population of speakers or signers that don’t have the kind of input that would allow you to calculate [what a subject is], that’s very newsworthy,” he said. “Because then you say, ‘Well, the simplest conclusion is probably: That’s something you come to the table with.’”

Originally published February 14, 2006

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