Think about it. If the human mind/brain is uniform in structure, then doesn't it follow that all languages should be, at some level, the same?

James Lavine

Is there a Universal Grammar at the heart of all languages? In other words, is there a common structure behind every language on the planet – from Arabic to Zulu – that can only be described as human? These are the questions that James Lavine and his colleagues at universities around the world are attempting to answer.

Linguistics, like any science, involves the interplay of empirical data and theory. The goal of the theory is to organize the data in a way that makes predictions about how we might expect certain phenomena to occur and pattern, across natural languages. Lavine's particular area of expertise is the syntax of Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish) and Baltic (Lithuanian) languages. But his most recent work involves case in Icelandic, a Germanic language.

"I am particularly interested in the area of syntactic variation, or what linguists call 'parameterization,' which lies at the center of work on Universal Grammar (UG)," he explains. "There are grammatical categories that are mentally represented but not pronounced and, therefore, are detectable only indirectly. I am specifically concerned with the functional categories of tense and voice, and with how case systems work."

Lavine's scholarship follows the program of generative grammar pioneered by Noam Chomsky, father of modern linguistics, philosopher and cognitive scientist. "Think about it," says Lavine. "If the human mind/brain is uniform in structure, then doesn't it follow that all languages should be, at some level, the same?" He helps his students envision a universal language using a three dimensional model that he describes as a mobile of sorts. Using this model, his students can make predictions about linguistic phenomena that they have not yet encountered. The key observation is that only certain patterns of phrase structure are licit – others do not occur. 

At a recent conference in Germany, Lavine was approached by a group of Icelandic linguists interested in the rules behind the passive voice in Ukrainian and Polish in order to prove one of their theories on the origin of a new passive in Icelandic. He explains that he has support from Bucknell to pursue answers that may shed light on UG. "I am very lucky," he says, "that as the Ruth Everett Sierzega Chair in Linguistics I am able to travel extensively, make contacts with linguists from around the globe and present at major international venues."

Posted September 26, 2013