What Can You Say without Syntax?

Session Date: 
Feb 20, 2015

A language can be thought of as a mapping between sound (or, in sign languages, gesture) and meaning (or concepts). In a developed language such as English, this mapping makes use of syntactic structure, in which words are categorized by parts of speech and words are combined in phrases such as Noun Phrase. Furthermore, a phrase can be made up of smaller phrases, so the structure can be highly hierarchical.

This talk will explore forms of language with a much more limited organization, linear grammar. Such languages (largely) lack the familiar manifestations of syntactic structure, but they still manage to map between sound and meaning. Languages with linear grammar include early stages of child language, stages in acquisition of second languages by adults, pidgins, “home signs” (the sign systems invented by deaf children with no sign language input), and “village signs” spoken in isolated communities with hereditary deafness. Linear grammars also are sufficient to describe (most aspects of) some “full” languages such as Riau Indonesian and Pirahã. Moreover, it appears that linear grammar is utilized by speakers of “developed” languages, mostly below the radar, but revealing itself under conditions of stress or brain damage. Finally, linear grammar is a plausible steppingstone in the evolution of the language faculty – an intermediate stage between primate call systems and modern human language.


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