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August 22, 2006

Naming: Universal Grammar Doesn't Mean Universal Brands

Charles YangA recent Wall Street Journal discussed Charles Yang’s theory that babies and toddlers don’t speak ungrammatically. Instead, infants come equipped with all possible grammatical rules, from all languages, and have to test them out against what their parents say is correct in order to narrow themselves down to one native language.

Charles Yang, by the way, just wrote , The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World (See left.)

In other words, those aren’t really mistakes in English usage, but rather an attempt to determine which constructions belong in English rather than Russian or Chinese or Malayalam - not, of course, that children are consciously aware this is what they are doing.

It’s a fascinating theory - and plausible, assuming that Yang has a way to determine what are “grammatical errors” and what are errors in pronunciation caused by undeveloped muscles.

It’s also important to remember that the existence of what Noam Chomsky called “universal grammar” does not mean there is a universal language. Attempts at finding words which have the same sound and meaning across languages have all failed so far, as have attempts at creating brand names which are universally pronounceable and comprehensible (think .)

Noam Chomsky and Alexander PushkinBy the way, Noam Chomsky happens to be our company mascot, along with Alexander Pushkin (See image to the right.)

The act of naming, therefore, is fundamental to human language development. Before children start speaking in sentences, they use names. Ask any parent whose toddler has demanded something seen on TV just how good the barely-verbal can be at brand recognition. Nor do children need to test out possible variants of names the way they do word order. Learning names is a matter of hear-and-repeat.

So it follows that working at a naming company is much more like learning your first language as an infant. Teams of namers come up with as many different-but-appropriate product names as possible. Suggested name candidates have to pass a thorough trademark analysis, and any names already in use are discarded. A much shorter list gets presented to the client, who then chooses only one final name (grammatical or otherwise) from the multiple final name candidates.

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Posted by Diane Prange at August 22, 2006 11:17 AM
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> ...Yang’s theory that babies and toddlers don’t speak ungrammatically. Instead, infants come equipped with all possible grammatical rules, from all languages...

This is actually a bit misleading. I think what Yang is pointing to is something that Chomsky posited early in his careeer - that newborns come equipped with all possible rules for all possible human languages.

That is, there's an infinite number of possible languages, but it would be impossible to find all the right rules from an infinte set. So the set of possible human languages has to be constrained, and it's that constrained set of possible grammatical that we use to make languages.

Posted by: Todd Sieling at August 23, 2006 12:02 PM

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