1000 petals by axinia

the only truth I know is my own experience

Grammar is universal, languages are different August 8, 2008

 image by axinia

That study could not leave me indifferent not only because of its amazing results, but also becasue the subject of languages is so dear to me. Apart from that I love theories  – and their proof! – showing the unity, the general oneness of all human beings. The recent research at the University of Chicago gives a good illustration to that.

“Not surprisingly, speakers of different languages describe events using the word orders prescribed by their language. The surprise is that when the same speakers are asked to ‘speak’ with their hands and not their mouths, they ignore these orders – they all use exactly the same order when they gesture,” said Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Bearsdley Rum Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology.

For the study described in the paper, the team tested 40 speakers of four different languages: 10 English, 10 Mandarin Chinese, 10 Spanish and 10 Turkish speakers. They showed them simple video sequences of activities and asked them to describe the action first in speech and a second time using only gestures.

They also gave another 40 speakers of the same languages transparencies to assemble after watching the video sequences. Some of the videos portrayed real people and others animated toys that represented a variety of sentence types: a girl waves, a duck moves to a wheelbarrow, a woman twists a knob and a girl gives a flower to man.

When asked to describe the scenes in speech, the speakers used the word orders typical of their respective languages. English, Spanish, and Chinese speakers first produced the subject, followed by the verb, and then the object (woman twists knob). Turkish speakers first produced the subject, followed by the object, and then the verb (woman knob twists).

But when asked to describe the same scenes using only their hands, all of the adults, no matter what language they spoke, produced the same order –– subject, object, verb (woman knob twists). When asked to assemble the transparencies after watching the video sequences (another nonverbal task, but one that is not communicative), people also tended to follow the subject, object, verb ordering found in the gestures produced without speech.

The grammars of modern languages developed over time and are the result of very distant cultural considerations that are difficult for linguists to study. The diversity in the grammar of languages creates a special beauty of variety and  – who knows? – may be it is makes us pay more attention to communication (not by chance knowing foreign languages is considered very important and is generally admired).

In terms of word-order I always wonder how they come to the “reverse” counting in German – I have to always think twice before saying “6+2” meaning actually “26” ! But here we are – it is the beauty of diversity 🙂 One universal grammar in our heads transforms into a bunch of all possible ways of expressing it in our mother-tongues…

LOVE; axinia


10 Responses to “Grammar is universal, languages are different”

  1. scietech Says:

    Hmmm . . . humans seem to be like machines to a certain extent. Computer languages are of two types – “low-level languages” that the machines understand but would not make any sense to the ordinary person and “high-level languages” that humans use to interact with computers.

    The human “low-level language” seems to be the one that all the participants used during the research while the “high-level languages” are the normal languages that we speak.

    Are all the numbers in German represented by words like that, Axinia? I mean, is “six-and-twenty”(when written in German) the German translation of twenty-six?

  2. axinia Says:

    scietech, happy to see you here again, thanks for your interesting comments!

    yes, in German ALL the numbers are like that 🙂
    If you have 126 then you say “hunddert sechs und zwanzig” which means “100+6+2”. very confusing! I heard from Germans themselve, that it neither seem natural to themselves 🙂

  3. scietech Says:

    I guess many languages have some funny rules when it comes to representing numbers in words 😐

    (By the way, I think you may already know this, but Scietech and An alien Earthling are the same person and he is also known as Raj 🙂 )

  4. Bad Karma Says:

    Gestures are very powerful. That’s why I’m excited that new technology coming out utilize gestures.

    And I think the machines are like us, not the other way around. =)

  5. axinia Says:

    @ scietech:
    “(By the way, I think you may already know this, but Scietech and An alien Earthling are the same person and he is also known as Raj ”
    – it is hard for me to understand, why one actually not only hides his personality, and creates multiples Internet personalities. I prefer to be myself in any situation. What is actually your motivation behind it?? thanks for spotting some light on this mysterious subject 🙂

  6. Axinia,

    I am not exactly hiding my personality 😐 Raj is a part of my name and outside my family, 70% of my friends and colleagues call me Raj.

    In any case, I am just trying to be myself in the blogosphere. I am a kind of a multiple personality in the real world as well 😐

    An alien Earthling and Scietech are the names of two of my three blogs (http://analienearthling.wordpress.com , http://scietech.wordpress.com and http://proseandpoetry.wordpress.com). All three of them concentrate on different things just like your blogs.

    The name An alien Earthling represents my first blog better than Raj because just like the title of my blog, An alien’s thoughts about our planet, I am writing things about different countries in the world and not just India. Anyway, anyone who visits my blog would know that I am Raj because it is mentioned in the About page.

    Actually, I feel I have revealed too much of my personality in the blogosphere. But I have been misunderstood so many times before and my comments have made my friends suspect many things of me, which are not true 😦

    Do you also view me with suspicion, Axinia? 😦

  7. axinia Says:

    thanks for this detailed explanatio, now I see 🙂 In my case of many blogs I keep them all on the same WordPressDashboard and therefor have the same name everywhere, which I find more easy.

    Surey, I dont suspect you in anything, my friend. In my life I normally attract very good, genuine people to myself. And I have much respect for my readers. If you are here for a long time (which you are!) then it means you are really ok 🙂 Otherwise the vibration of this place whould have washed you away…
    btw, have you read my thoughts on you (which you asked me to give in some other comments)? I never got your feedback on it 🙂

  8. radha Says:

    I am always surprised here surrounded by Chinese how good they are in reading several languages when it comes to technology and computers, while on a speaking level they are only good at their mother tongue and maybe some english ..

  9. guqin Says:

    I may be able to explain the phenonmenon posted by the title: The universality of grammar is no mystery but merely a reflection of the space-time structure of our world:

    At the beginning, there were only nouns, then verbs (adjectives etc. came later). Typically, nouns represented objects, that is, space. Verbs represented transformations (movements, changes, etc.) of objects, that is, time. Early humans, when interacted with this world, must follow its space-time configuration. And since languages in essence are discriptions or records of such interactions, therefore their earliest grammar must record this space-time configuration too. And this space-time configuration is the same everywhere. Same way, all mathematics in different cultures began with counting. Structure of integers is their universal grammar.

  10. axinia Says:

    guqin, that is brilliant!!

    I love such observations, because they underline our similarities and not differences (of course, there are a lot of diversity but if we concentrate too much on diversity, we forget about the oneness which are all are)….

    thank you!

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