HUMAN FACTOR | BASIC RESEARCH
Norvin Richards explores how our voices shape the rules of grammar
“The claim I’m making in this book is that our explanations [for differences in syntax] should start with a careful explanation of the phonology and morphology.”
—Norvin Richards, Associate Professor of Linguistics and MacVicar Faculty Fellow
In English, declarative sentences do not usually begin with a verb. Let us suppose you are struggling in a language class, and complain about it to a friend.
“It seems like French is hard,” you say. Fair enough. Still, there is something a bit odd about that sentence: What purpose or meaning does “it” have?
“It doesn’t mean anything,” says Norvin Richards, a professor of linguistics and the Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow at MIT. “It’s just there to stop the sentence from starting with the verb ‘seems.’ You do that in English and you do it in French, but there are languages where you don’t do it.”
For instance: Italian, where the same complaint about your French class would likely be, “Sembra che il francese è difficile.” That starts with a verb; the Italian word “sembra” means “seems” in English. As it happens, both English and French tend not to have sentences beginning with verbs, while such sentences are normal in both Italian and Spanish.
But exactly why do languages differ in this way? Linguists who study syntax have catalogued myriad distinguishing rules and patterns among world languages — without necessarily explaining why such differences exist. But now Richards has a new explanation, detailed in his book, Contiguity Theory, recently published by the MIT Press.