Questionable Motives

June 3, 2010

What’s in a word?

Filed under: Language,Science — tildeb @ 10:00 am

In short: brain development. Different language, different brain development. Fascinating hypothesis

From New Scientist:

LANGUAGES are wonderfully idiosyncratic. English puts its subject before its verb. Finnish has lots of cases. Mandarin is highly tonal.

Yet despite these differences, one of the most influential ideas in the study of language is that of universal grammar. Put forward by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, it is widely interpreted as meaning that all languages are basically the same and that the human brain is born language-ready, with an in-built program that is able to decipher the common rules underpinning any mother tongue. For five decades this idea has dominated work in linguistics, psychology and cognitive science. To understand language, it implied, you must sweep aside the dazzling diversity of languages and find the common human core.

But what if the very diversity of languages is the key to understanding human communication? This is the idea being put forward by linguists Nicholas Evans of the Australian National University in Canberra and Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

They believe that languages do not share a common set of rules. Instead, they say, their sheer variety is a defining feature of human communication – something not seen in other animals. And that’s not all. Language diversity is the “crucial fact for understanding the place of language in human cognition”, Levinson and Evans argue.

The standard modern metaphor for cognition is the “toolbox”, with humans sharing some tools with other animals while having others that are exclusive to us. For Evans and Levinson, cognition is more like “a machine tool, capable of manufacturing special tools for special jobs… like calculating, playing the piano, reading right to left, or speaking Arabic”. In this view, the brain of a child does not arrive pre-programmed with abstract linguistic rules. Instead, its initial setting is much simpler: the first job of the brain is to build a more complicated brain. This it does using any input that it gets, including language. This could mean that speakers of very different languages have quite different brains, says Levinson.

How cool is that?


  1. Well, ‘cool’ means that something conforms to expectations created by mass market advertising, so it seems an inapplicalbe word here.

    Any new theory of linguistic development and relationships would have to explain how any linguistic construction in one one language can be understood and translated by speakers of a different language. The quotation above does not suggest how this new idea would address that problem.

    Comment by Helena Constantine — June 3, 2010 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

    • Any new theory of linguistic development and relationships would have to explain how any linguistic construction in one one language can be understood and translated by speakers of a different language.

      Perhaps you mean something other than what you have written here. Why does the hypothesis that language development grows the brain in ways particular to the language require an explanation for linguistic translation in order to be validated? I do not see how your assertion fits with the idea of language regarding music or math, unless your definition of language is your own.

      Comment by tildeb — June 3, 2010 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

  2. Actually the word ‘cool’ has different meanings depending on the context or syntax of the sentence that it is used in. The word ‘cool’ can be an adjective, transitive verb, intransitive verb or a noun. It has been used in English for quite sometime traversing the zeitgeist within many areas of interest such as music, art, youth culture, technology AND marketing – and like all words in a language it is designed to be used where it makes sense to use it.

    I believe that Tildeb is using it to mean, excellent or admirable, with the emphasis on showing his enthusiasm for the subject matter – in which case it is perfectly applicable and appropriate to use the word.

    Yes Tildeb, the human mind is excellent, admirable and is most certainly a very cool piece of kit to have evolved.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 3, 2010 @ 3:27 pm | Reply

    • As well as truly fascinating. Few areas of science I think are as ‘cool’ as neuroscience as we begin to discover just how reciprocal the mind and brain are. What we think is often determined by how we think and this has huge ramifications especially in better understanding efficacy in mental health and education.

      Comment by tildeb — June 3, 2010 @ 4:35 pm | Reply

  3. and technology… evolution, linguistics, cognitive sciences are studied in computer science for the development of artificial intelligence – which is also a fascinating subject – you might like this:

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 4, 2010 @ 2:36 am | Reply

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