Language schools » Linguistics » Syntax » Basis for Linguistic Syntax

Basis for Linguistic Syntax

Basis for Linguistic Syntax

Declensions on Nouns

The problem of syntax covers mainly two aspects on structuring of sentences, viz., declensions on nouns and word ordering; here we consider the first aspect in detail: The syntactic structuring of sentences in all languages appears to be based on certain universal guidelines. Ease with which toddlers (around one to 4 years of age) acquire linguistic pronunciation and syntactic skills without significant ‘parental guidance’ has continued to baffle us. It is believed that humans are endowed with a few ‘genetic traits’ on linguistic universals. However, in view of the fact that sentences, in general, are verbal representations of real world events, (e.g., ‘He is surfing Web’ is obviously a verbal representation of the concerned event) one may infer a basis for linguistic syntax embedded in the nature of real world events along following lines. Obviously, a baby instinctually learns an event of ‘eating’ before he learns the verb ‘to eat’, by mastering synchronized manipulations of concerned proprioseptive sensor and kinesthetic motor neurons, i.e., by learning the orchestrated motions of the muscles in his jaws, tongue, food tract etc., or, in terms of computational theory of mind, by developing a bio-neural software in his brain. Subsequently, when his mummy holds a piece of cake close to his mouth and cajoles him repeatedly ‘to eat’, by the ‘contiguous’ nature of the events in the scenario, he associates the word ‘to eat’ to the ‘event of eating’. By about four years of age, he would have learnt similarly the verb, ‘to give’; but, in presence of his new younger sister, when he has to appeal to his mother to give a piece of cake to him, he would encounter a difficulty to distinctly identify the recipient.

Such practical situations prompt young toddlers to seek the case indicators for nouns in sentences, and with only a little prompting in right direction by their parents, they readily catch on the case attachments for the nouns in simple sentences, which might give us an impression that they are predisposed to learn the syntactic structuring. The basics of syntax are thus genetically acquired for a few primary, representative verbs to start with and they are subsequently generalized for other verbs as and when they are encountered. In summary, any real world event requires one or more actors to participate in distinct roles; e.g., ‘to give’ requires three actors, one to give, second to accept and a third, the object that is being given. In any sentence, which is only a verbal representation of such an event, these modes of actors are identified by appropriate subscripts or prepositions attached on to each of the nouns. It appears that young toddlers acquire simple real world events as well as their verbal representations, i.e., for syntactic structuring those events in their mother tongue or first-language simultaneously. Thus, universality in syntactic structuring of all languages arises due to the universal nature of real world events.

Word ordering in Sentences

Nearly 150 years ago, German philologist, Max Muller at Oxford recognized that Indo-European Languages had significant commonalities in vocabulary and grammar. Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein at Cambridge proposed a concept of Logical Atomism whereby knowledge is acquired by humans as atomic constructs or memes that are assembled to obtain sentences. As regards sentential structures a profound distinction in position of verbs is readily noticeable: verbs in Sanskrit are generally placed at ends of sentences, whereas in English they immediately follow the subjects. The reason is perhaps simple: the Oriental Sanskrit adopts a descriptive approach and as pointed out in Basis for Syntax, Declensions on Nouns, since any event can be accomplished only after all paraphernalia are assembled, the verbal representation of the event, a sentence, carries the verb at its end. On the other hand, English adopts a prescriptive approach by declaring the event, verb immediately following the subject and then elaborating on the roles of various actors in the event. Moreover, it has been seen that the declension a noun carries is decided by the mode of its participation in the event concerned.

The nature of various physical events is widely varied; it is impossible to standardize the roles that different actors take in all events and provide distinctive features to accommodate them in sentences. Finnish linguists have devised fifteen case declensions; in Sanskrit there are seven and in English, perhaps four or more. It was the well known grammarian, Panini, c 500 B C, who first serialized the seven noun declensions in his Ashtaadhyaayii, a collection of grammatical formulae, as per following details: 1.Subject or Nominative(meaning: to be / expressed by, say, A); 2. Object or Accusative(to be acted on / A); 3. Instrumental(by whom act is affected / by A); 4. Dative(to whom act is directed / to A); 5. Ablative(extracting or starting from/ from A); 6. Possessive(possession / A's) and 7. Locative (Supporting / at A). As regards a basis for such a serialization, he offered a suthra, implying that 'the noun at seventh declension participates least in the event; it only provides a platform for the event concerned'.

Universal Syntax

As elaborated under Declensions on Nouns and Word ordering in Sentences, all events in nature are executed by one or more actors via definite procedure(s). In a verbal representation of such an event that takes form of a sentence, the syntax essentially represents the transliteration of the 'procedure' that point to the roles of various actors as well as the sequential order of execution. These factors, being independent of the language concerned, one notices a commonality, or a feature of 'universal syntax' common to all languages. It should be noted however that the procedures only dictate incorporation of the 'syntactic features' into the languages and linguists are called upon to 'give shape' to these demands in form of appropriate declensions as subscripts or prepositions to nouns and ordering of the various words, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs etc., based on appropriate guide lines facilitating easy and accurate comprehension of the sentence. Thus, sentences, that are, in general, verbal representations of physical events, in multitudes of languages appear to be formed under universal syntax guidelines due to the fact that the syntax essentially is a transcription of the event execution procedures which remain independent of the concerned languages.