Unique languages, universal patterns

To the chagrin of anyone who knows one of these languages but not the other, English and Japanese appear to be frustratingly different tongues governed by drastically different rules. And yet, under the surface, English and Japanese have deep similarities, as MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa argues in his new book, Case, Argument Structure, and Word Order, published this month in Routledge's "Leading Linguists" series.

In turn, the similarities between English and Japanese underscore a larger point about human language, in Miyagawa's view: All its varieties exist within a relatively structured framework. Languages are different, but not radically different. Dating to the 1950s, in fact, much of MIT's linguistics program has aimed to identify the similar pathways that apparently unrelated languages take.

"There is this very interesting tension in language between diversity and uniformity," says Miyagawa, the Kochi Prefecture-John Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. "Human languages are diverse in stunning ways. Each one has some unique property that distinguishes it from 6,500 or maybe 7,000 other languages. But when you look as a linguist, you begin to notice that there are uniform properties shared by languages."

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Lucy Lindsey and Melanie Gonick