Charades Reveals Universal Sentence Structure. Or Not.

First, Ewen Callaway in New Scientist:

To determine whether these differences carry over to unspoken communication, Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues asked 40 native speakers of Chinese, Turkish, English and Spanish to mime scenarios shown on a computer screen using only their hands and body.

These included a boy drinking a bottle of soda and a ship’s captain swinging a pail of water.

Regardless of the order used in their native spoken language, most of the volunteers communicated with a subject-object-verb construction.

“We actually thought we were going to get gestures that just matched your speech,” Goldin-Meadow says.

In a separate experiment, she asked volunteers to reconstruct a scenario using transparencies depicting different elements. Again, people of all cultures tended to arrange the transparencies in subject-object-verb order.

Next, David Beaver’s reaction over at Language Log:

We have a hypothesis, that SOV [subject object verb] is an innate linguistic trait, and we have a suggestion from Goldin-Meadow about how to test it: look at non-linguistic representations, and if the same order is found in non-linguistic representations, then there’s no reason to think that SOV is a specifically linguistic trait.

Fast-forward to the present. Goldin-Meadow has now finished doing the work. And she’s found that the same order is indeed used in non-linguistic representations. Ergo we’ve no evidence at all that the SOV preference is “an innate linguistic trait.” No evidence of syntax etched into the brain. If only the new New Scientist reporter had started his working day by reading what the old New Scientist reporter had written.

The discussion in the Goldin-Meadow PNAS article is completely in tune with her comments in the earlier New Scientist article (and, incidentally, with my own immediate reactions, as reported earlier), and out of tune with the way she is reported in the new New Scientist article. The PNAS article suggests that a basic order of Actor-Patient-Action (thus ArPA order, where “Patient” is one way linguists describe things that are acted upon) is cognitively natural, independently of language. That is, to the extent that anything is “etched into our brains” it’s not sentence syntax, but a way of thinking about events.