60 Second Seminar: Grammar and Language

As a syntactician, I am fascinated by
grammar. I don’t mean grammar in the sense of spelling ‘there’ correctly or using apostrophes in the right places. I mean grammar in the sense of what you
know in order to speak and understand a language. Like all linguists I take a descriptive rather than a prescriptive view of language so I can tell you what people do do rather than what they should do. One of the most obvious things about language is that it’s not fixed but rather subject to change. The great-great-great-great-great-great-great great-great-great-great-great grandparents of some English and German speakers would have spoken the same language, but those two languages are obviously very different from each other now and that’s because they’ve drifted apart in terms of the sounds and the words they use but also in terms of their grammar. What’s most interesting is that there seem to be limits on how much languages can change. There are some kinds of grammars that simply don’t seem to happen, even though we might expect them to, and we can test the learnability of these systems using artificial languages. The results provide important insights about how human language works.

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