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Brain researchers discover the evolutionary traces of grammar

Researchers found that simple language structures are processed in an area that is phylogenetically older, and which apes also possess. Complicated structures, by contrast, activate processes in a comparatively younger area which only exists in a more highly evolved species: humans. These results are fundamental to furthering our understanding of the human language faculty. (PNAS, February 6, 2006)

One characteristic that clearly distinguishes us from non-human primates is our ability to understand and produce language. In particular, the human ability to apply complex linguistic rules has been held responsible for the fact that, in contrast to other species, we can produce and understand long sentences. When analysing language rules (syntax), one discovers two fundamentally different grammatical patterns. A simple rule governs the establishment of typical (probable) connections between words, like between article and noun ("a song") in contrast to article and verb ("a pleases"). The probability for a noun to follow an article is very high, while the probability of a following verb is very low. However, in order to understand longer sentences, a complex structural model is required - what is called a "hierarchy". Hierarchical dependencies serve to connect parts of a sentence - for example "around" an inserted subordinate clause: "The song [that the boy sang] pleased the teacher". The Max Planck study aimed to compare brain activities during the processing of both models - simple "local probability" and complex "hierarchy".

In a behavioural experiment, US scientists previously demonstrated that non-human primates (tamarin monkeys) are able to process local probability-based rules, but not hierarchical ones. This result led the researchers from Leipzig to hypothesise that complex grammatical rules are processed by brain areas that are "phylogenetically younger". The researchers investigated this assumption in an experiment using functional magnetic re
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Contact: Profs. Angela D. Friederici und Jrg Bahlmann
bahlmann@cbs.mpg.de
49-341-9940-112
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
16-Feb-2006


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