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Monday, February 7, 2005; Page A12

The Quick and the Dead

The key to a long life may not just be being quick-witted, but also just plain quick, according to new research.

Previous studies have found that people with lower IQs tend to have shorter life spans than those with higher IQs. But some have speculated the phenomenon may be because smarter people tend to have safer jobs.

So Ian J. Deary of the University of Edinburgh and Geoff Der of the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow studied data collected in 1988 about 412 male and 486 female 54- to 58-year-olds living in Scotland.

The participants had taken tests measuring both their intelligence and their reaction time -- how fast they pressed a button after seeing a number on a screen. Over the next 14 years, 185 of the subjects died, allowing the researchers to examine the data to see whether their IQs or quickness predicted their mortality.

Those with higher IQ scores lived longer, but faster reaction time seemed to be an even better predictor of a long life than intelligence. In fact, it appeared to account completely for the difference between the two groups, the researchers found.

"The reaction time variables were stronger predictors of death than was . . . intelligence," the researchers wrote in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.

It remains unclear, the researchers noted, whether people had slower reaction times because they were already in poor health, although that does not appear to be the case. More studies will be needed to fully explain the link, the researchers said.

"We and others are following up several possible explanations for this intriguing new association," Deary said.

-- Rob Stein

Syntax of a Pristine Language

Language is a characteristic human creation. It is a way of both interpreting the world and imposing order on the world. Consequently, some linguists and psychologists view grammar as a peep-hole into the workings of the human mind.

The problem is few opportunities arise to study a language that is "uncorrupted" by contact with other tongues or is not the product of cultures mingling, such as Creole. A group of American and Israeli researchers, however, think they have found one such pristine language.

It is called Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. It is used by many of the 3,500 members of a community of tribesmen in the Negev desert founded about 200 years ago.

Inbreeding over seven generations has led to a large number of people who are born deaf. The deaf Al-Sayyid Bedouins are full members of the tribe, bear no stigma and usually have hearing spouses. The sign language apparently developed about 70 years ago when the number of deaf tribesmen began to rise. Those people had no access to any language unless they invented one for themselves. Today, all deaf members and many hearing ones are fully fluent in their own sign language.

Carol Padden of the University of California at San Diego and colleagues at Stony Brook University in New York and the University of Haifa in Israel analyzed the language's structure and discovered that the overwhelming syntax was subject-object-verb.

A sentence consisting of "Bob Mary kiss" -- which could theoretically mean either "Bob kisses Mary" or "Mary kisses Bob" -- unambiguously means "Bob kisses Mary" because of the word order. The researchers also found that modifiers such as adjectives, numbers, or negatives always follow nouns and never precede them.

Interestingly, those basic rules governing how to make sense of a string of words were different in the Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language from all its neighboring tongues -- dialectical Arabic, classical Arabic, Hebrew, and Israeli Sign Language.

The researchers, who reported their findings in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, determined the structure of sentences based on pauses in hand gestures and facial cues, as well as translations provided by interpreters.

Languages can have other ways of denoting who is the actor, and who is the recipient of action, in a sentence. These include cases for nouns, and subject-object agreement. However, in the absence of such refinements, word order is key.

The subject-object-verb structure in the Bedouin sign language is the most common word order found in languages generally. There is also evidence it is the structure found in the earliest languages.

The appearance of such a clear-cut rule early in the evolution of a language "is rare empirical verification of the unique proclivity of the human mind for structuring a communication system along grammatical lines," the authors write.

-- David Brown

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