'Hard-Wired' Grammar Rules Found for All Languages
January 15, 2002
By BRENDA FOWLER
In 1981 the linguist Noam Chomsky, who had already proposed that language was not learned but innate, made an even bolder claim. The grammars of all languages, he said, can be described by a set of universal rules or principles, and the differences among those grammars are due to a finite set of options that are also innate.
If grammar were bread, then flour and liquid would be the universal rules; the options - parameters, Dr. Chomsky called them - would be things like yeast, eggs, sugar and jalapenos, any of which yield a substantially different product when added to the universals. The theory would explain why grammars vary only within a narrow range, despite the tremendous number and diversity of languages.
While most linguists would now agree that language is innate, Dr. Chomsky's ideas about principles and parameters have remained bitterly controversial. Even his supporters could not claim to have tested his theory with the really tough cases, the languages considered most different from those the linguists typically know well.
But in a new book, Dr. Mark C. Baker, a linguist at Rutgers University whose dissertation was supervised by Dr. Chomsky, says he has discerned the parameters for a remarkably diverse set of languages, especially American-Indian and African tongues.
In the book, The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar (Basic Books, 2001), Dr. Baker sets forth a hierarchy of parameters that sorts them according to their power to affect and potentially nullify one another.
Just as the periodic table of elements illustrates the discrete units of the physical world, Dr. Baker's hierarchy charts the finite set of discrete factors that create differences in grammars.
That these parameters can be organized in a logical and systematic way, Dr. Baker says, suggests that there may be some deeper theory underlying them, and that the hierarchy may even guide language acquisition in children.
The hierarchy is not the same as a family tree, which illustrates the historical relations among languages - for example, Italian, French, Spanish and their mother tongue, Latin. Nor does it have anything to do with the way words vary from language to language. Instead, Dr. Baker analyzes grammar - the set of principles that describe the order in which words and phrases are strung together, tenses added and questions formed. Dr. Baker, like Dr. Chomsky, believes these instructions are hard-wired into humans' brains.
His most spectacular discovery is that the grammars of English and Mohawk, which appear radically different, are distinguished by just a single powerful parameter whose position at the top of the hierarchy creates an enormous effect.
Mohawk is a polysynthetic language: its verbs may be long and complicated, made up of many different parts. It can express in one word what English must express in many words. For example, "Washakotya'tawitsherahetkvhta'se' " means, "He made the thing that one puts on one's body ugly for her" - meaning, he uglified her dress.
In that statement, "hetkv" is the root of the verb "to be ugly." Many of the other bits are prefixes that specify the pronouns of the subject and object. Every verb includes "each of the main participants in the event described by the verb," Dr. Baker writes. In all, Mohawk has 58 prefixes, one for each possible combination of subject, object and indirect object.
Dr. Baker says the polysynthesis parameter is the most fundamental difference that languages can have, and it cleaves off Mohawk and a few other languages - for example, Mayali, spoken in northern Australia - from all others. That two such far- flung languages operate in the same way is more evidence for the idea that languages do not simply evolve in a gradual or unconstrained fashion, Dr. Baker says.
At the next junction in the hierarchy, two parameters are at work: "optional polysynthesis" (in which polysynthetic prefixes are possible, but not required) and "head directionality," which dictates whether modifiers and other new words are added before or after existing phrases. In English, new words are at the front. For example, to make a prepositional phrase "with her sister," the preposition goes before the noun. In Lakota, a Sioux language, the reverse is true. The English sentence "I will put the book on the table" reads like this in Lakota: "I table the on book the put will." Japanese, Turkish and Greenlandic are other languages that opt for new words at the end of phrases, while Khmer and Welsh have the same setting as English.
In all, Dr. Baker and others have identified about 14 parameters, and he believes that there may be 16 more.
Dr. Baker's work is by no means universally accepted. Dr. Robert Van Valin, a professor of linguistics at the State University of New York at Buffalo, says the findings rest on a questionable assumption: that there is a universal grammar.
"What they're doing in that whole program is taking English-like structures and putting the words or parts of words of other languages in those structures and then discovering that they're just like English," he said.
Dr. Karin E. Michelson, an associate professor of linguistics at SUNY Buffalo, who also disagrees with the Chomskyan approach, said after reviewing Dr. Baker's Mohawk work that some of the sentences he selected seemed artificial.
Dr. Baker acknowledged that some of the longer words in his study were "carefully engineered," but he said the parameter still held up using more common examples of Mohawk. He said using only examples from real discourse restricted the kind of analysis that linguists could do.
"It would be like constraining a physicist to learn about gravity without ever building a vacuum tube," Dr. Baker said.
Other linguists, however, say they are excited by Dr. Baker's work. "He's a very influential linguist, and my guess is that this will provide insights and will spawn research for the next few years," said Dr. Stephen Crain, a professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland.
If Dr. Baker's theory is correct, a further question is how the parameters of grammar are set as a child learns language. Does a child in an English-speaking environment start at the top of the hierarchy, somehow grasp that polysynthesis is not at work, and then move on to the next level in the hierarchy?
Dr. Baker also wonders why, if the brain is hard-wired for grammar, it leaves the parameter settings unspecified. Why aren't they hard- wired, too?
Humans are assumed to have language in the first place because it allows them to communicate useful information to others. But perhaps, Dr. Baker speculates, language is also a tool of cryptography - a way of concealing information from competitors.
In that case, he went on, "the parameters would be the scrambling procedures."