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Riddled with irregularity

Why are languages so different—and disorderly?

By Philip Ball   September 2012

Languages are extremely diverse, but they are not arbitrary. Behind the bewildering, contradictory ways in which different tongues conceptualise the world, we can sometimes discern order. Linguists have traditionally assumed that this reflects the hardwired linguistic aptitude of the human brain. Yet recent scientific studies propose that language “universals” aren’t simply prescribed by genes but that they arise from the interaction between the biology of human perception and the bustle, exchange and negotiation of human culture.

Language has a logical job to do—to convey information—and yet it is riddled with…

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