Grammar's Secret Skeleton

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA--It's been more than 3 decades since scientist-dissident Noam Chomsky offered a controversial theory: that babies learn how to speak so easily because they're born with a sense of grammar that transcends individual languages. Chomsky, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), challenged researchers to find simple rules that govern all languages, from Arabic to Zulu. Linguists presented what they claim are some key elements of this universal grammar here on 22 January at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW). Their findings have rekindled the debate over whether grammar is innate.

University of Venice linguist Guglielmo Cinque recounted an odyssey in which he and his students surveyed word order and meaning in some 500 languages and dialects. Sifting through grammatical analyses and querying native speakers, they found that every language consists of sentences based on a verb phrase surrounded by modifiers in predictable patterns. Because this core structure does not vary, Cinque concludes that "our human species imposes these rules on language as part of our genetic endowment."

In another talk, MIT linguist David Pesetsky, a former student of Chomsky, examined the so-called Question Rule. At first glance, questions appear strikingly different in many languages. For instance, the question "Whose book did Mary buy?" would be "Chju Marija kupila knigu?" or "Whose Mary bought book?" in Russian. Comparing these sentences and equivalents in Bulgarian and Okinawan, a Japanese dialect, Pesetsky and his students have discovered a recurring syntax theme: Different languages consistently place variations on the word "whose" and accompanying words at one end of a sentence.

Both sets of findings are compelling, says Victoria Fromkin, a linguist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). "The universal properties they've found ... make a very strong case that our species is biologically endowed with a set of rules for communication," she says. But some researchers contend that Cinque and Pesetsky are overreaching. "We all agree that somehow we have a language faculty that predisposes humans to speak," says UCLA colleague Edward Keenan. "What's at issue is how specific it is." Charting similarities between languages isn't enough to claim a universal grammar, Keenan says. "The evidence just isn't in."