People may perceive a natural order to events that helps to organize language
We all order in the same way, no matter what language we speak. That neat trick occurs in the course of daily affairs, not in an Esperanto-only restaurant. People nonverbally represent all kinds of events in a consistent order that corresponds to subject-object-verb, even if they speak a language such as English that uses a different ordering scheme, a new study finds.
The findings challenge the more than 60-year-old idea that a
person’s native language orchestrates the way he or she thinks about the world.
Instead, a universal, nonverbal preference for ordering events in a particular
way exists apart from language, propose psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow of the
“This order is found in the earliest stages of newly evolving sign languages and may reflect a natural disposition that humans exploit when creating language anew,” Goldin-Meadow says.
The new study makes a good case for a common, unspoken
approach to representing sequences of events, remarks psychologist Larissa
Samuelson of the
She suspects that a shared attribute of still-unfolding brains in children at least partly shapes language structure. “An important step is to see whether young children show the same natural sequence for event representations that adults do,” Samuelson says.
Goldin-Meadow’s team studied 20 Turkish speakers in
In one task, half the speakers of each language described 36 brief vignettes shown on a computer screen, first in words and then using only hand gestures. Vignettes included a girl waving to an unseen person, a duck walking to a wheelbarrow, a woman twisting a knob and a girl giving a flower to a man.
Verbal descriptions followed language-specific word sequencing, the researchers report in the July 8 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. English, Spanish and Chinese speakers used a subject-verb-object sequence, such as saying “the woman twists the knob.” Turkish speakers used a subject-object-verb sequence, saying the equivalent of “the woman the knob twists.”
Most languages worldwide employ one or the other of these ordering formats, although exceptions exist, Goldin-Meadow notes.
Yet all participants, regardless of language, produced gestures first for an actor, then for an object and finally for an action in portraying vignettes. After watching a woman twisting a knob, all volunteers nonverbally communicated a sequence of events corresponding to “woman knob twists.”
In another task, the remaining half of the speakers of each language reconstructed the same 36 vignettes by stacking sets of three transparent pictures one at a time onto a peg to form a single image. The final image looked the same regardless of the order in which transparencies were stacked, such as a woman on the left, a knob on the right and a circular-shaped arrow in the middle denoting a twisting motion.
Speakers of all languages almost always stacked images in the same order. Participants typically chose the drawing of a woman first, followed by the drawing of a knob and finally the drawing of a circular arrow, again reflecting a subject-object-verb preference.
Intriguingly, a subject-object-verb arrangement also
characterizes a sign language that arose over the past 70 years in an isolated
Bedouin community in
Goldin-Meadow has found deaf children elsewhere in the world who have never heard anyone talk have developed sign languages that follow a consistent object-verb order, though the placement of subject remains unclear. She plans to investigate whether these deaf youngsters display a preference for subject-object-verb sequences. She also wants to examine how these children order transparencies to describe events that they’ve seen.
In the meantime, the
As a language community grows and its speech becomes more complex, the subject-object-verb format sometimes changes for still unclear reasons, Goldin-Meadow speculates.
Goldin-Meadow, S., et al., "The natural order of events: How speakers of different languages represent events nonverbally," July 8, 2008, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 105, no. 27, p. 9163-9168, doi:10.1073/pnas.0710060105
Sandler, W., et al., "The emergence of grammar: Systematic structure in a new language," Feb. 15, 2005, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 102, no. 7, p. 2661-2665, doi:10.1073/pnas.0405448102
For more information: www.goldin-meadow-lab.uchicago.edu/