Researchers are challenging Noam Chomsky‘s universal ordering of language. A hallmark of modern day linguistics, it postulates that there are common language roots through all language families, making it easier for children to grasp.
In contrast, the researchers’ study claim that the formation of languages is much more unpredictable and contingent on cultural factors:
The results are bad news for universalists: “most observed functional dependencies between traits are lineage-specific rather than universal tendencies,” according to the authors. The authors were able to identify 19 strong correlations between word order traits, but none of these appeared in all four families; only one of them appeared in more than two. Fifteen of them only occur in a single family. Specific predictions based on the Greenberg approach to linguistics also failed to hold up under the phylogenetic analysis. “Systematic linkages of traits are likely to be the rare exception rather than the rule,” the authors conclude.
If universal features can’t account for what we observe, what can? Common descent. “Cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states.”
Why should we care? On March 24th LOL, OMG and ❤ were added to the Oxford English dictionary, solidifying ‘leet’ speak and other internet derived slang into cultural normatives. This may seem irrelevant to the debate between universal ordering and more lineage-based linguistic evolution, but the age of the Internet allows for confrontation between cultural norms much quicker than previously centuries. How it will encroach and transform our linguistics may serve to further support either of these debates.
By Lisa Baldini on April 20, 2011