Woman knob twists

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 NATURAL ORDER Rows of images show an English speaker (top) and a Turkish speaker (bottom) using gestures to describe a scene in which they saw a captain swinging a pail. The English speaker conveys the captain by making a gesture for his cap; the Turkish speaker does so by pointing at a picture of the captain. S. Goldin-Meadow

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 University of Chicago and her colleagues.

“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 University of Iowa in Iowa City. But it’s unclear whether this natural sequencing format results from hardwired brain features or emerges early in life as the brain develops, Samuelson notes.

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 Istanbul, 20 Mandarin Chinese speakers in Beijing, 20 English speakers in Chicago and 20 Spanish speakers in Madrid. Participants came from universities in each city.

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 Israel. As a result of a genetic condition, that community has a high incidence of deafness that develops in early childhood.

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 University of Chicago researcher suggests that it’s easier to think about distinct entities, as opposed to actions. This leads people to highlight those involved in an action before focusing on the nature of the action. Given a particularly close association between objects and actions, action sequences are at least initially represented as subject-object-verb, in her view.

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.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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