Universiteit Leiden

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Understanding the brain via language

Professor Jenny Doetjes at Leiden University researches similarities and differences in languages, specifically in the area of numerals and quantifiers. Her research provides insight into language patterns, bu also in the working of the human brain. Inaugural lecture on 26 January.

‘Languages can share characteristics, even if the languages themselves are unrelated,' Jenny Doetjes, professor of Semantics and Language Variation, explains. ‘French has similarities not only with Spanish and Italian, but also surprisingly enough with Chinook and Mandarin. One of these similarities is that both French and Mandarin have question forms where the interrogative is placed at the end of the sentence rather than at the start. Actually, languages share a lot more traits than you might expect.' Why is that? Can we explain these differences and similarities in languages? This is what the research field of theoretical linguistics is all about. 

Counting in languages

In her research, Doetjes looks particularly at counting in different languages. And because there has been a lot of research on this and the working of the brain in recent years, the subject also lends itself well to research on the connection between language and cognition (the way people perceive, learn and process information). In her research on countability and language variation she has identified parallels with findings from American psychology research that demonstrated that our brain has a number of inbuilt 'core knowledge systems'. These systems help us distinguish between entities, and  differentiate between small (three to five) and large numbers. On this basis, we can assume that our brain can make a very precise image of small numbers, but that we see larger numbers in a more abstract way. 

Imagining small and large numbers

Doetjes sees the way the brain distinguishes between small and large numbers reflected in how languages treat quantities. She found in Dutch, for example, that small and large numbers 'behave' differently in so-called object- and event-related interpretations of numerals. ‘When we count, we generally count separate individuals. When I talk about four ships, for example, I mean four different ships, and I am implying that four different ships actually exist. In the event-related interpretation, that's not the case.  Take the sentence: 'Last night 50 ships passed through the lock.' In a very general interpretation of this sentence, it's not the individual ships we're counting but movements across the water.' In other words, with descriptions of small numbers we imagine these small numbers precisely, and we assume they are separate entities. With large numbers, on the other hand, we imagine something more abstract, and the individual entities retreat into the background.  This is precisely the  way that psychologists think the brain works. 

More collaboration needed

More work on patterns within languages will allow linguists to make more correlations with the working of the human brain, Doetjes believes. To be able to do that, the disciplines within linguistics have to work together. 'We need researchers from different backgrounds so that we can gain insights into different aspects of language, but if we don't work together on this, we won't make progress.'