This article was produced and financed by The Research Council of Norway

Are humans born with an “internal” grammar, an innate ability to know what is right and wrong in language? (Illustration photo: Coloubox)

Language designed for thinking

Language did not evolve to facilitate human communication; it developed as a tool for use in thinking.

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The Research Council of Norway

The Research Council of Norway is a government agency responsible for awarding grands for research as well as promoting research and science. It also advises the government in matters related to research.

All languages consist of a basic structure of verb and noun.

"But the meaning of the words differs widely. This results in so much ambiguity that language becomes less suitable for communication between people. If a system for communication is to work well, linguistic expressions must be clear,” says Professor Peter Svenonius at The Centre for Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics (CASTL) in Tromsø, Norway.

“Each expression should have one and only one meaning. But the opposite is often the case when language is used. Thus, language is not well adapted for communicating.”

Svenonius believes that this confirms that language was not created for the goal of communicating; rather, language was created for use in thinking. We are forced to use verbs and nouns quite simply because that is how our brains prefer it.

Vast capacity for learning languages

Already at birth, human children are endowed with an exceptional ability, fundamentally different from other new-born creatures: they possess a vast capacity for language learning.

At a stage when its development in many areas remains minimal, a child is capable of understanding complicated language structures.

This miracle of learning inspired linguists in Tromsø to seek a deeper understanding into human language.

Language is in the details

The core question in language research has been this: are humans born with an “internal” grammar, an innate ability to know what is right and wrong in language? Or is language acquisition simply a matter of individuals imitating word combinations they encounter in the world around them?

At the age of 18 months most children already know whether the verb precedes the object (VO), as in Norwegian and English: drikke melk, drink milk, or whether the word sequence is the object followed by the verb (OV), as in German: Milch trinken. Even more impressive is the ability of bilingual children to distinguish between two languages at the time they begin speaking.

“How do children know when they are supposed to use the one or the other? It is extremely complicated – and even more so when it comes to dialects,” says Marit Westergaard, Director of CASTL.

“We used to think that children put in place the major structures of a language first, but our research shows the opposite to be true: children focus on the details. They start with the minor structures and go on to construct language from there.”

CASTL’s findings have resulted in a new theoretical model for language acquisition.

Many common language characteristics – not a common language origin

Comparative linguistics has also been an important area of research at the centre in recent years.

Svenonius has headed efforts to compare over a hundred languages for similarities and differences. In this way, researchers at CASTL have sought to find out how individual languages are constructed grammatically and where the similarities and differences lie. They have also studied the meaning of words in the various languages.

“On the surface, it might sound like Kurdish or Arabic is very different from Norwegian or English. But digging deeper into these languages reveals many common features," says Svenonius.

The researchers at CASTL pose many questions: Are the common features for languages due to a shared heritage? Did there once exist a single language that is the common origin of all other languages? Or could there be something in the human brain and/or in our environment that automatically causes human language to be the way it is?

“In spite of the similarities, we are convinced that human languages are so different that all languages could not have descended from a single origin," concludes Svenonius.

Translated by: Glenn Wells/Carol B. Eckman

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