Language: Innate or Cultural?

Culture trumps biology in language development, study argues

Researchers construct evolutionary trees for four linguistic groups and conclude that cultures, not innate preferences, drive the language rules humans create contrary to the findings of noted linguists Noam Chomsky and Joseph Greenberg.

Noam Chomsky argued that a small… (Juan Barreto, AFP/Getty Images)

April 14, 2011|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
Are the rules of language encoded in our genes, or are they primarily shaped by the speaker’s cultural context?Leading linguistic thinkers have argued that our brains are hard-wired for languages to follow certain sets of rules. But a team of scientists is challenging that premise in a study published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The team used biological tools to construct evolutionary trees for four language families and found that each of the families followed its own idiosyncratic structural rules, a sign that humans’ language choices are driven by culture rather than innate preferences.

The authors say their findings run contrary to the idea of Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar, which says the brain has hard and fast ordering rules for language. They also contradict the “universal rules” of Joseph H. Greenberg, who said languages tended to choose certain patterns over others.

“Culture trumps the innate structure of the human mind,” said study coauthor Russell Gray, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “We need to take much more seriously the role of cultural factors in changing language diversity.”

But many linguists challenged the study’s conclusions and said that, in any event, they did not contradict Greenberg’s ideas.

About 7,000 languages are spoken today, each with a unique blend of sounds, words and structure. Some languages place the verb near the beginning of a sentence, while others stick it at the end. Some have genitives (like the possessive in “Mary’s dog”); others do not.

For decades, linguists have studied the diverse structures of languages with the idea that there are underlying principles all languages follow — principles that many presumed were programmed into our brains.

Chomsky argued that a small set of hard-wired rules determined the underlying structure of all languages. Greenberg statistically analyzed a multitude of languages and identified a universal list of ordering relationships within them. For example, if a language puts verbs before objects (as in the English “eat bagels”), it also will put prepositions before nouns (“in school”). But if it puts verbs after objects, it will have postpositions instead (as Hindi does).



About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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