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June 05, 2010

Researchers question Chomsky's universal grammar

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One of the most influential ideas in the study of language is that of universal grammar. Put forward by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, it is widely interpreted as meaning that all languages are basically the same and that the human brain is born language-ready, with an in-built program that is able to decipher the common rules underpinning any mother tongue. For five decades this idea has dominated work in linguistics, psychology and cognitive science.

But what if the very diversity of languages is the key to understanding human communication? This is the idea being put forward by linguists Nicholas Evans of the Australian National University in Canberra and Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

They believe that languages do not share a common set of rules. Instead, they say, their sheer variety is a defining feature of human communication - something not seen in other animals. And that's not all. Language diversity is the "crucial fact for understanding the place of language in human cognition".

Click here for the full article in the New Scientist.

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