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The ups and downs of speech!

books Updated: Jun 26, 2010 20:04 IST

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BabyEver wondered how babies piece together the grammatical rules of language? Well, a universal rule that links intonation with word order could explain, a new study says.

Norvin Richards of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has proposed the universal rule linking intonation with where we place question-words like "what" and "who" in a sentence, the New Scientist reported.

This is the first time anyone has found a link between intonation, according to the study.

In some languages, a statement can be turned into a question by, for example, replacing the object of the sentence with a question-word and changing the intonation. In other languages, including English, the question-word also moves relative to the word it replaces -- "Heather is buying a book" becomes "What is Heather buying?".

In his new book Uttering Trees, Richards claims that by studying the complex patterns affecting intonation in different languages, he can predict whether the question-word will move and where it will go. He says he has checked this for 20 languages, such as Japanese and Basque, where the rules of intonation are precise enough for the idea to be tested.

Intonation can be mapped as patterns of pitch that are separated by breaks. Richards found that whether the question-word moves relative to the word it replaces depends on whether these breaks tend to come at the beginning of phrases or at the end.

"If correct, it is a very important discovery," said Maria Luisa Zubizarreta at University of Southern California.