PNAS Study: Language Structure Arises from Balance of Clear and Effective Communication
When learning a new language, we automatically organize words into sentences that will be both clearly understood and efficient (quick) to communicate. That’s the finding of a new study reported today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) which challenges opposing theories on why and how languages come to be organized the way they are.
With more than 5000 languages in the world, it would be easy to assume all vary endlessly, but, in fact, there is great commonality: languages follow only a few recurrent patterns. These commonalities are called “language universals,” a notion suggested in the 1960’s by Noam Chomsky and Joseph Greenberg. A team of researchers from the University of Rochester and Georgetown University Medical Center set out to investigate how these language universals come to be.
Linguists and cognitive scientists have opposing ideas on how a language is developed and shaped. Some believe that languages all derived from a common ancestor; others think that languages vary quite widely and universals do not exist at all. Some have suggested that language universals are an arbitrary evolutionary outcome. The position of the Rochester-Georgetown team is that the human mind shapes a language, even while learning it, based on the need for robust and effective information transfer.
“The thousands of natural languages in our world only have a couple of formats in which they appear, and we are good at understanding and learning languages that have just these formats. Otherwise we could never succeed in learning something so complicated as human languages,” says one of the study’s authors, Elissa L. Newport, Ph.D., a professor in the department of neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center.