The rules of language are innate… unless they’re not

A study just published by a team of cognitive scientists at Johns Hopkins University has found evidence that humans are born with an innate sense of syntactical rules that makes it easier for us to learn languages. The findings are based on an experiment involving teaching groups of people various artificial languages that differ from one another only in certain grammatical rules.

What makes this finding particularly interesting is that just a little over a year ago a team at the Max Planck Institute found evidence that syntactical rules in languages evolve from each language’s unique historical context, and not from anything innate in the human brain.

And on the gripping hand, there was also a study published last June by Dr. Paul Kiparsky of Stanford University in which he found evidence that language change over time seems to follow universal principles.

I’m not a linguistic anthropologist, much less a formal linguist, and I certainly don’t understand the subject well enough to critique any of these papers. However, the question of whether or not universal language structures are innate to the human brain (as Noam Chomsky proposed almost 50 years ago) is a truly fascinating one, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the debate will continue to evolve.

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