Grammar hardwired into our brains

From ABC News in Science, 1 April 2014:

Shoes two blue or shoes blue two: which phrase makes more sense?

Certain grammatical rules may be hardwired into our brains so we have an instinctive sense of how certain types of words should be grouped together, no matter what language we speak, a new study suggests.

The study revealed that volunteers taught a fake language based on English words automatically arranged noun, adjectives and numbers in the same order — an order that is common to the majority of known languages.

The US research, led by Dr Jennifer Culbertson from George Mason University, Virginia, is published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We designed a fake language so the language uses English words … but we ordered them in a funny way such that you get a noun like ‘shoes’ first before an adjective like ‘blue’ — the opposite that you would get in English,” says Culbertson.

The English-speaking volunteers heard phrases in which a noun was followed by an adjective, such as ‘shoes blue’, and phrases in which a noun was followed by a number, for example, ‘shoes two’.

Then they were asked to guess the order of words when the phrase contained a noun and both the adjective and the number, even though they had not been taught the language rule for that particular situation. Read more.

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