Posts Tagged ‘Universal Grammar’

Tower of Babel

I don’t think it takes a linguist to notice that the language we speak seems to shape the way we think, and how our brain works. Since the 1960s, though, we have pretty much accepted Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar, or, to put it briefly, 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.

Thanks to The virtual linguist, I found this very interesting article on the New Scientist about the ideas 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 argue that

the brain of a child does not arrive pre-programmed with abstract linguistic rules. Instead, its initial setting is much simpler: the first job of the brain is to build a more complicated brain. This it does using any input that it gets, including language. This could mean that speakers of very different languages have quite different brains, says Levinson.

This could mean that what Chomsky and others see as “innate” is actually the product of a much simpler and less rigid form of hard-wiring. Evans and Levinson argue that there are no absolute language universals, but rather

a mix of strong and weak tendencies that characterises the “bio-cultural” hybrid we call language.

This means that there is more room for variation than we might expect. A very interesting passage points out how

humans are more diverse than we thought, with our brains having differences depending on the language environment in which we grew up.

I have to admit that Psycholinguistics and Neurolinguistics are two of the most fascinating  fields of research for a language freak like me. But besides the curiosity, I think this kind of research often addresses many interesting points that can be very useful for translators to explain to the general public what translation is and to advance the understanding and recognition of our work. For example, we read that

Work in the past two decades has shown that several languages lack an open adverb class, which means the number of adverbs available is limited. […] More controversially, some linguists argue that a few languages, such as Straits Salish, spoken by indigenous people from north-western regions of North America, do not even have distinct nouns or verbs. Instead they have a single class of words to encompass events, entities and qualities.

This last point, however controversial, allows us to speculate on the implications it would have in terms of translation. How massively would we need to rework a text originally written in such a language, if we were to translate it into English? It’s one of those cases where an extreme example allows us to better understand the translation process and the skills needed in order to carry it out. And there is more. Apparently,

The Kiowa people of North America use a plural marker that means “of unexpected number”. Attached to “leg”, the marker means “one or more than two”. Attached to “stone”, it means “just two”.

Obviously, if we were to translate between Kiowa and English, we would need to enquire further in order to obtain extra information – does that man have one leg or more than two? Information that a Kiowa speaker won’t include in the expression but that is felt as necessary by the English-speaking mind, which won’t be content to know that someone has an “unexpected number” of legs.

The most fascinating example from the New Scientist article, though, is that of

“rawa-dawa”, from the Mundari language of the Indian subcontinent, meaning “the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible, and no one is there to witness it”

It is worth pointing out that bridging such fundamental differences between languages is a translator’s daily task, and a perfect example to make people think about the skills needed to overcome the challenges we face in our often underpaid decoding and re-encoding efforts.

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