30 June 2008

Hardwired for SOV

English uses a subject-verb-object word order. For example, "the man hit the ball." Other languages, such as Turkish, use a subject-object-verb word order. For example, "The man, the ball, hit" to express the same idea. New research suggests that we may be hardwired for a subject-object-verb word order, and use alternate word orders found in some world languages only as a result of nuture that overcomes this natural tendency.

Researchers asking subjects to express ideas non-verbally, and situations where sign language evolves among deaf people without involvement for the local linguistic culture, have both shown a preference for SOV, rather than SVO word orders. The studies were small, but were notable for the near uniform extent to which people from different cultures where the spoken language uses an SVO word order revert to an SOV word order in non-verbal expression.

Linguists in the tradition of Noam Chomsky (better known for his political views which are anti-authoritarian, distrust the mass media, and reject many political assumptions shared by more moderate members of the political left and right) have argued that grammar is a largely hardwired part of our brains (a "universal grammar"), in which the grammatical features that differ from one language to another are mostly in the nature of multiple choice switches triggered one way or another early in the language acquisition process. The most recent research argues that some of those "switches," (called "parameters") like the one controlling word order, have default settings that apply if cultural influences do not intervene.

Critics of this approach argue that proponents of universal grammars have failed to be sufficiently diligent in rooting out counter-examples from less well known languages, and suggest that the brain function rules involved in language acquisition are more rudimentary than the "universal grammer" with parameters, or successor approaches would suggest.

1 comment:

Michael Malak said...

When you write "hardwired for a subject-object-verb word order" I think you need to clarify that you are writing about spoken order. It is quite possible (probably in my opinion) that SVO is easier to understand, as it tells a story in chronological order.