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Models, Signs, and Universal Rules

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Linguists from Chomsky to Kegl explain that rules innate in all human brains cause the grammaticality of the older children’s sign language. However, an alternate explanation exists, one that does not require the presence of the still unfathomed complexities of universal grammar or the leap from phenomenon to imagined cause. What will be surprising to these linguists, although it is easily seen, is that basic syntax comes from the gestures these children use. The sign for “tell” described in the New York Times Magazine story starts with the hand near the teller’s mouth, straight fingers held away from but opposite the thumb; then when the hand moves out to point at the one being told, the fingers close against the thumb. Kegl’s parsing of this as “verb agreement” is too timid a step. The gesture is actually a transitive sentence: [Speaker] told [listener]. The nouns in brackets do not have to be “understood,” as our eighth grade grammar teachers used to tell us. “Speaker” is physically and very visibly right there where the hand starts its movement forward, and when the movement ends, one sees the listener (or the location the listener occupied earlier).

If the “tell” sign is at all typical of their output, these deaf children and adolescents are not using grammar rules but rather their vision, modeling, and representation to make transitive sentences. Intransitive sentences are even easier: The origin of the sign’s movement points to or resembles what acted or changed, and the movement itself shows that action or change. More than that, the hand is used to point or to resemble (e.g., the hand opens and shuts like a mouth). The hand’s action (motion from teller to told) takes its path and direction from the observed nature of what it represents; it is an index in Sebeok’s classification of signs. Thus, in this and many other signs, the handshape with its action constitutes a sentence, but at the same time the handshape is a subject or noun phrase and the action is a predicate or verb phrase.

This finding of grammar in natural, constantly occurring, universal human manual actions is orders of magnitude simpler, more parsimonious, than positing rules and imagining that a near miraculous mutation implanted them in human brain cells. Human vision, with its separate brain networks to pick out details and to track movement, allows us (deaf or hearing, infant or adult) to model what we observe. The great variety of configurations the human hand can assume and the unique articulation and musculature of the human arm allow infants to make visible the common human model of our world (in which creatures move and act and objects are acted on).

Some may find it disappointing that this progression from observing to modeling to representing to grammar is so simple, straightforward, and natural. Like Ockham’s Razor this explanation does without much that is nonessential. Yet it allows us to track language to its beginnings in the infant (and by extrapolation, in an earlier human species). It also resolves a seeming paradox: There cannot be a sentence unless words are sorted into nouns and verbs, but there are no nouns and verbs without sentences. One way out is to posit universal grammar and imagine that a mutation put grammar into human brains. An alternative explanation is that gestures made of nounlike hands and verblike hand movements are the first sentences. Brain scientists point out that this is precisely the way the brain works, not putting already sorted things together by rule or otherwise. For example, “Diversity is continually being carved out of the existing unity” (Kinsbourne 1998, 243). Sentences and sentence parts carved out of existing gestures are appropriate instances of this generalization.

The “Out of Africa” theory of human origin and dispersion is supported by copious archaeological evidence, but it is still a theory that new evidence may disconfirm. However, the theory that language or universal grammar in the brain comes from Out of Nowhere (a linguistic “Big Bang”) is unsupportable except ipse dixit (he has said it). An alternate theory is that infant perception action begins everywhere by representing things and events gesturally and in due time replaces many of the gestures with words (or signs) of the adult language. This theory is set forth fully in Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox (1995), Armstrong (1999), and Stokoe (forthcoming). Good science examines alternative theories before proclaiming from the housetops and in the pages of the New York Times that only one theory merits our attention.


Volume 1: Issue 1