Language designed for thinking

The Centre for Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics (CASTL) at the University of Tromsø was among the initial 13 Norwegian Centres of Excellence (SFF) established. After ten years, its activities as an SFF centre are drawing to a close.

Researchers at the centre have put together many pieces of the puzzle concerning the development of human language.

Young children understand complicated language structures

Already at birth, human children are endowed with an exceptional ability, fundamentally different from other new-born creatures: they possess a vast capacity for language learning.

At a stage when its development in many areas remains minimal, a child is capable of understanding complicated language structures. This miracle of learning inspired linguists in Tromsø to seek a deeper understanding into human language.

Photo: Thoralf Fagertun Children focus on the details. They start with the minor structures and go on to construct language from there. (Photo: Thoralf Fagertun)

Language is in the details

The core question in language research has been this: are humans born with an “internal” grammar, an innate ability to know what is right and wrong in language? Or is language acquisition simply a matter of individuals imitating word combinations they encounter in the world around them?

At the age of 18 months most children already know whether the verb precedes the object (VO), as in Norwegian and English: drikke melk, drink milk, or whether the word sequence is the object followed by the verb (OV), as in German: Milch trinken. Even more impressive is the ability of bilingual children to distinguish between two languages at the time they begin speaking.

“How do children know when they are supposed to use the one or the other? It is extremely complicated – and even more so when it comes to dialects,” says Marit Westergaard, Director of CASTL.

“We used to think that children put in place the major structures of a language first, but research carried out at CASTL shows the opposite to be true: children focus on the details. They start with the minor structures and go on to construct language from there.”

CASTL’s findings have resulted in a new theoretical model for language acquisition.

Many common language characteristics – not a common language origin

Comparative linguistics has also been an important area of research at the centre in recent years.

Professor Peter Svenonius has headed efforts to compare over a hundred languages for similarities and differences. In this way, researchers at CASTL have sought to find out how individual languages are constructed grammatically and where the similarities and differences lie. They have also studied the meaning of words in the various languages.

Photo: Christer Pedersen CLOSELY FOLLOWED: Right after news of the centre was publicised, an email arrived from Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most famous linguist in the world. He congratulated the Tromsø researchers and pointed out that their research centre was unlike anything else in the world. Dr Chomsky has since followed the centre closely. (He participated in CASTL’s concluding conference in Tromsø this year). From left: Marit Westergaard, Noam Chomsky, Curt Rice and Peter Svenonius. (Photo: Christer Pedersen)

“On the surface, it might sound like Kurdish or Arabic is very different from Norwegian or English. But digging deeper into these languages reveals many common features. Linguists have known for a long time that this is the case; but at CASTL we have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why. Is it due to a shared heritage? Did there once exist a single language that is the common origin of all other languages? Or could there be something in the human brain and/or in our environment that automatically causes human language to be the way it is?

“In spite of the similarities, we at CASTL are convinced that human languages are so different that all languages could not have descended from a single origin,” says Dr Svenonius.

Ambiguity makes language less adapted for use in communication

“All languages consist of a basic structure of verb and noun. But the meaning of the words differs widely. This results in so much ambiguity that language becomes less suitable for communication between people. If a system for communication is to work well, linguistic expressions must be clear,” Dr Svenonius asserts.

“Each expression should have one and only one meaning. But the opposite is often the case when language is used. Thus, language is not well adapted for communicating.”

Dr Svenonius believes that this confirms that language was not created for the goal of communicating; rather, language was created for use in thinking. We are forced to use verbs and nouns quite simply because that is how our brains prefer it.

Peter Svenonius will take over the leadership of CASTL when the centre embarks upon its new life after 1 January 2013.

A change in academic culture

CASTL was the University of Tromsø’s first Centre of Excellence. Curt Rice, from the US, was the centre’s first director. Today he is Vice Rector at Norway’s northernmost university and views it all from a more overall perspective.

“Before the centre started in 2003, we each had our own little office where we sat and ruminated about our own separate research projects. We hardly knew what other colleagues were working on. Scientific management was practically non-existent. The situation today is completely different. Not only the language researchers, but also most other researchers at the university, are now organised more into research groups. People are working together. Ambitious research groups see the SFF status as something to strive for.”

Dr Rice believes that the SFF scheme has altered the academic culture at the university. CASTL has attracted a number of high-calibre international researchers. Four of six senior researchers at CASTL are foreign. None of the 14 research fellowship-holders are Norwegian.

More than a Centre of Excellence

When its period as an SFF centre ends, CASTL will continue in a different form. After 1 January, the centre will be incorporated into the Department of Language and Linguistics where the centre’s senior researchers are already permanently employed. The university will fund one management position whereas the rest of the staff will return to teaching. The centre’s leadership is pleased with this solution.

“Our graduate-level researcher training school, which was established in 2005, will get a real boost with six new research fellowship-holders to be hired in the autumn. The centre will carry out a cluster of sub-projects with primarily external funding.”

Activity begets activity. When CASTL started, there were five senior researchers and a handful of fellowship-holders. Per autumn 2012, the centre consists of 35 employees on the payroll and between 50 and 60 persons associated with the centre through sub-projects.

“CASTL is not simply an SFF construct; it is an entity hosting a great many other sub-projects undertaken over time. We have also had status as a Nordic Centre of Excellence, funded by NordForsk, during this time. This has helped to make Norwegian and Nordic languages and dialects an important research subject in spite of the fact that Norwegian researchers have been a distinct minority at the centre,” the trio of centre directors explain. “The future is bright for CASTL – even when it is no longer an SFF centre.”

Center for Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics (CASTL)
  • Objective: To examine the characteristics of linguistic variation and find out how languages differ from one another.
  • Participants: University of Tromsø.
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council of Norway: NOK 6 million.
  • Total annual budget: NOK 10 million.
  • Total man-years: 35.



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