Dixon (1999)


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Syntax – The pillar of human language

What separates us from the animals? Why have humans been able to conquer the planet whereas no other animal hasn’t? The answer is of course language! “But hold on!” I hear you say, “We’re not the only animals with language, whales sing to each other, dogs bark, hyenas laugh and they all appear to understand one another.” That is true, but these methods of communication are heavily simplified. An animal call may mean ‘There is food here‘ or ‘Danger!’ but what they lack is the ability to put these sounds together to form complicated meanings.

Even if animals were able to do this, we would encounter another problem as to how to interpret these new complicated meanings. What would the sounds for ‘food here‘ and ‘danger‘ together mean? Dangerous food? Food is here but there is also a leopard in the bushes? This is where syntax comes in.

Syntax essentially categorises words, fills in the gaps and makes a group of words make sense. Every human in the world uses the same syntactic structure to communicate with other humans, the only difference is the sounds that are produced. This isn’t to be confused with the order of where words appears such as Subject-Verb-Object compared to Subject-Object-Verb in Japanese for example, as all languages contain nouns, verbs, prepositions, inflections etc. no matter where they come in the sentence, they are still present. So there is clearly an underlying system that all humans can understand and acquire.

So where is this stepping stone between one sound calls and a complex sentences? How did humans get here? Bickerton refers to the case of Genie, a girl who had had no communication with anyone due to her father imprisoning her from the age of 18 months until she was found years later at the age of 13. She had missed the critical age of of between 18 months and 3 years where she children usually acquire an adult language (see language acquisition). When she was found she didn’t know how to speak English at all. Even after a long time of treatment from speech therapists and linguistic experts, she only managed to gain a very simple version of English. Her sentence’s consisted of noun and verb or adjective and noun, occasional strung together and even more rarely with adverbs and certain prepositions.

Here’s an example:

G: Genie have yellow material at school.
M: What are you using it for?
G: Paint. Paint picture. Take home. Ask teacher yellow material. Blue paint. Yellow green paint. Genie have blue material. Teacher said no. Genie use material paint. I want use material at school.

He had expected her to either fully learn human language as someone might learn a 2nd language, or not be able to learn one at all. Bickerton found it strange that the girl had developed a kind of proto, or base language. This form of speaking is actually more common than you might think. If you’ve ever been on holiday to a country whose language you can’t speak, you may have found yourself trying to talk like this to get your point across. Protolanguage is the most basic form of language, where the mere sounds of words begin to form meanings when combined together.

There is still the issue of how language moved from the protolanguage structure to the syntactical structure. The answer lies in explicity, or being as clear as possible. If a child were to say to you ‘no socks!’ how would you interpret it? That the child isn’t wearing socks? They do not own any socks? They don’t want to wear socks? They don’t want you to wear socks? There are too many ways for the sentence to be interpreted. By adding new phrases to the sentence the meaning becomes narrowed down. The actual meaning in this instance is ‘I don’t want to wear socks’. If we are to break it down, you can see it is rather difficult to not understand. The noun phrase I refers to the speaker, don’t is a combination of the verb to do and a negative, want to ties to don’t to form the negative of want, wear shows what what not/to do with the object, and finally socks the object of the sentence. Everything from don’t to wear tells us something about the socks in relation to the child. A lot better and surprisingly, easier to understand than simply ‘no socks!’!

For more information on how humans acquired language please check the links on finding out more.

  • Adapted from: Bickerton D., (1990) Language and Species. The University of Chicago Press.

One of the most interesting aspects of the English language is the ability to change the order of words and still end up with the same meaning such as ‘John bought a book’ and ‘A book was bought by John’. You may recognise these as the active and the passive forms of a sentence, the passive sentence being the one where the object is given more emphasis than the subject as opposed to the standard subject-verb-object. But if we can easily shift the object and subject around, how do we recognise which one is which in any given sentence?

The key actually lies with the verb. If we want to say that a hearty chuckle was let out by John at someone called Mary (in far less words of course!) we might say ‘John laughed at Mary’. Here, laughed acts as a bridge between Mary and John indicating that what comes before the verb acts on what comes after the verb. This is called a transitive verb. If we were to swap the subject and verb however we come up with ‘at Mary laughed John’ we have a sentence which kind of makes sense, but doesn’t seem to sit right on the tongue.

Another form of verb is the intransitive verb which does not need an object to function so we can say things like ‘John laughed’. Intransitive verbs are used extensively in the passive tense so we can use an intransitive from of the verb laughed to move around the subject and object so we end up with ‘Mary was laughed at by John’.

So there you have it, a very brief look at how subject and object can be defined and the links they have to the different types of verb.

  • Adapted from: R.M.W. Dixon (1989) Subject and Object in Universal Grammar Clarendon Paperbacks

Where to next?

Why not check out how syntax is studied and where is syntax studied to take a closer look at what other researchers are doing.