How to Understand the Deep Structures of Language: Scientific American | Writing, Research, Applied Thinking and Applied Theory: Solutions with Interesting Implications, Problem Solving, Teaching and Research driven solutions |
In an alternative to Chomsky’s "Universal Grammar," scientists explore language’s fundamental design constraints




Starting with pioneering work by Joseph Greenberg, scholars have cataloged over two thousand linguistic universals (facts true of all languages) and biases (facts true of most languages). For instance, in languages with fixed word order, the subject almost always comes before the object. If the verb describes a caused event, the entity that caused the event is the subject ("John broke the vase") not the object (for example, "The vase shbroke John" meaning "John broke the vase"). In languages like English where the verb agrees with one of its subjects or objects, it typically agrees with the subject (compare "the child eats the carrots" with "the children eat the carrots") and not with its object (this would look like "the child eats the carrot" vs. "the child eat the carrots"), though in some languages, like Hungarian, the ending of the verb changes to match both the subject and object. 


When I point this out to my students, I usually get blank stares. How else could language work? The answer is: very differently. Scientists and engineers have created hundreds of artificial languages to do the work of mathematics (often called "the universal language"), logic, and computer programming. These languages show none of the features mentioned above for the simplest of reasons: the researchers who invented these languages never bothered to include verb agreement or even the subject/object distinction itself.