OK, so that is a bit of an oversimplification…. but it does appear as though another nail is being hammered into the coffin of Universal Grammar (UG).
This has all come out of a recent research paper in the science journal Nature and apparently it only appears that there are commonalities of form across languages, they don’t really exist, or where they do there are other reasons for why they do.
Broadly speaking, UG views state there are over-riding parameters in the brain that govern language development and that these account for similarities in languages. The other main theories of commonalities in across languages come out of the work of Greenberg, who is best known for his classifications of languages. In the Greenbergian view, (if I understand this right and I’m not sure I do), commonalities exist because they are simply the most efficient way of doing something. Statistically speaking, the more languages you have, the more likely therefore a particular pattern will be repeated.
What the research authors found though, was that most seemingly universal language structures are only shared within language families, not across them. Though it should be mentioned that when you have Portuguese, Afrikaans and Polish as distant cousins in the same family, these families are rather broad. Nevertheless, the implications are that language traits are more cultural than previously supposed.
What does this mean? Not sure really. UG theories gave rise to the idea of a Language Acquisition Device (LAD), and I don’t think this necessarily means LADs don’t exist, just that they might all be programmed slightly differently? If culture determines language to a greater extent than previously thought, it probably means that intercultural communication is and should be a greater part of language teaching. ICC has been a part of Business English teaching for years, perhaps it should now be part of the mainstream?
The paper is called “Evolved structure of language show lineage-specific trends in word-order universals” and I can only suggest giving it the once over before drawing your own conclusions, as I suspect mine are… well…. a bit suspect.
If you’d like to know more about this, then Mark Liberman has posted a detailed review of the paper on the Language Log Blog, which has drawn some in depth discussion involving one of the papers authors.
There is also a highly accessible interpretation in The Economist – which also discusses an article looking for the birthplace of language.