The importance of language structure

Think of a frequently used noun or verb in our language. Try to count how many times you have uttered it in the last two hours. Now, do the same with the article “the”. The language we speak is not only made of content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, for instance) but also of lots of words that provide a support to them (articles, prepositions, etc.) that are used much more frequently than the first (function words, or functors). Despite the huge variability of known languages, language scientists were able to divide them roughly into two main categories: the languages in which the functor precedes the content word – and that use a Verb-Object order (VO) – and vice versa (OV). The experimental observations showed that the frequency of the terms is a clue that helps identifying to which category a language belongs and, as a consequence, “tuning in” to it.

Knowing the language’s structure enables the individual to segment the speech (to divide the language flow into single words) and affects language learnability. This effect has been observed also in very young children for some languages, such as Italian and Japanese. A group of neuroscientists, including Jacques Mehler and Marina Nespor of the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, have extended the experiment also to adults, employing a wider range of languages. The research has been published in the review Frontiers in Psychology.

The experiment was carried on Italian and French native speakers (in representation of the VO language group), and on Japanese and Basque native speakers (OV languages), carrying out learning tasks centered on sentences in an artificial (invented) language that could feature one of the two order structures.

Linguistics and information theory

The majority of languages — roughly 85 percent of them — can be sorted into two categories: those, like English, in which the basic sentence form is subject-verb-object (“the girl kicks the ball”), and those, like Japanese, in which the basic sentence form is subject-object-verb (“the girl the ball kicks”).

The reason for the difference has remained somewhat mysterious, but researchers from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences now believe that they can account for it using concepts borrowed from information theory. The researchers will present their hypothesis in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

In their paper, the MIT researchers argue that languages develop the word order rules they do in order to minimize the risk of miscommunication across a noisy channel.

The tendency even of speakers of a subject-verb-object (SVO) language like English to gesture subject-object-verb (SOV) may be an example of an innate human preference for linguistically recapitulating old information before introducing new information. The “old before new” theory — which, according to the University of Pennsylvania linguist Ellen Price, is also known as the given-new, known-new, and presupposition-focus theory — has a rich history in the linguistic literature, dating back to at least the work of the German philosopher Hermann Paul, in 1880.