Grammatical patterns survive extreme social upheaval, study shows

"To me, the most surprising result of our investigation is the realization that languages are transmitted in an extremely robust manner," said scientist Damian E. Blasi.
By Brooks Hays  |  Sept. 5, 2017 at 1:32 PM
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Sept. 5 (UPI) -- New research suggests creoles inherit their basic grammatical structures from the languages spoken at the time and place of their emergence.

Creole languages are hybridized languages. They're often born of harsh social conditions and upheaval, such as colonial slaveries, when disparate groups of people are forced quickly forge ways of communicating.

Creoles from all over the globe share a surprisingly similar grammatical structure. Most creole sentences use a subject-verb-object word sequencing.

As such, linguists have suggested creoles evolved from a basic communication system, called a pidgin. The hypothesis suggests humans have an innate ability to organize words and phrases.

The pidgin allows creole users to borrow words and phrases from other languages to form basic, streamlined sentences. From this basic system, the creole quickly evolves to take on more complexity. But the basic underlying grammatical structures remain the same.

The latest research out of Germany and Switzerland rejects such a hypothesis. When linguists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Leipzig University and the University of Zurich used computer models to survey grammatical patterns among creole and non-creole languages, they found most creoles retain the structural signatures of the languages from which the mixed language was formed.

That most creoles use a subject-verb-object sequencing pattern simply reflects the fact that most world languages employ such a pattern.

"Creole languages look deceptively similar, but now that we know more about the world's languages, we see more and more features that were inherited from African, Asian and European languages," Susanne Maria Michaelis, a researcher at Leipzig and the Max Planck Institute, said in a news release.

"What this means is that there is no evidence for a pidgin stage in the history of these languages," said Martin Haspelmath.

The findings -- detailed this week in the journal Nature Human Behavior -- suggest the patterns and structures of parent languages truly are learned, absorbed and recycled by creole-speakers.

"To me, the most surprising result of our investigation is the realization that languages are transmitted in an extremely robust manner: many creoles emerged from situations like slavery or trade posts, which seem particularly difficult for learning languages," said Damian E. Blasi, a scientist at the University of Zurich and the Max Planck Institute. "Nevertheless, we humans are extremely good at preserving and learning all sorts of complex behaviors like musical traditions or marriage patterns, and this study shows that language is perhaps the most outstanding proof of that ability."

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