20 Mayıs 2014 Salı

The Notion and Development of Universal Grammar

In very broad sense Universal Grammar - I will abbreviate it as UG all through this article- is the grammatical properties shared by all human languages. (1) When Chomsky put forward the idea of Innateness Hypothesis in the 1960s he also mentioned UG as a part of his theory. After behaviorism Chomskian revolution in linguistics shifted the mentality from empiricism to rationalism. As a result of this change language studies are thought at abstract level. When we look at the origin of UG we can see with ease that linguists or philosophers who are in favor of rationalism gave voice to UG. In the rest of the article we are going to take a journey to the origin of UG and later we will evaluate the aspect of UG shaped by Chomsky.

Around AD 1000, a shift began in which logic came to dominate linguistic thougt. (2) With this trend rationalist linguists, philosophers and intellectuals looked the language studies from different perspective than traditional view. The most substantial difference is that these rationalists highlighted the universal nature of grammar.

The first person to mention UG is known to be Robert Kilwardby (1215-1279) He divided his career in between Paris and Oxford. First as a student and then as a master at the Faculty of Arts in Paris in the period 1231–1245, he produced the earliest comprehensive group of commentaries of the arts syllabus that came down to us, with comments on the subjects of grammar, logic, and ethics. Kilwardby was seen by his and our contemporaries: as a conservative neo-Augustinian, fighting the progress of Aristotelianism. (3) That is why he insisted on the universal nature of grammar.

Concept of UG fully developed by Roger Bacon. (1214-1294) Bacon is known for his famous statement that '' Grammar is substantially one and the same in all languages, although it may vary accidentally'' (4) So judging on this quotation we would find a strong evidence of UG in the thought of Bacon. Accidental diversity, on the other hand, is another fundamental feature of language, according to Bacon, and it is due to the fact that language is conventional (ad placitum) and that every nation chose its own linguistic means: “In every language, words are given at pleasure, and this is why the Greeks imposed words according to their own will as we did according to our [will] and in accordance with the principles of our language as they in accordance with the principles of their language” (5) After an extensive research and comparing languages he came up with the idea of UG. He analyzed and compared Latin, Greek, some Slavic languages. He saw relationship among these languages. Hence he formulated UG.

Another important figure who thought UG was Descartes.  (1596-1650) Descartes was one of the Cartesian Philosophers. Cartesian Philosophers favored the use of reason and logic to improve natural sciences. Therefore, as a mentalist and rationalist Chomsky picked up on Descartes remarks about the creative nature of language. (6)A letter to Mersenne in 1629, Descartes commented on a universal grammar and dictionary that someone had been marketing commercially with the promise that anyone who learns this (universal) language, would also know all the others as dialects of it"(Descartes 1629).

Speculative Grammarians also dealt with the notion of UG. Actually their main goal was 'modi significandi' ways of signifying. (7) Speculative grammarians were roughly composed of 30 authors called Modistae. According to the Modistae, the grammarian's job was to explain how the intellect had created the system of grammar. (8) Such a grammatical system had to mirror reality as grasped by understanding; that is, grammar was ultimately underwritten by the very structure of the universe. ( Breva-Claramonte 1983: 47)

The trace of UG can also be seen  in the works of Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558), Francisco Sanchez de las Brozas (1523-1601), James Harris (1709-1780)

Up till now we have seen the mark of UG in the Mediavel philosophy. We now know that UG has a deep root in medieval times and was highly related with the thought of rationalism. But can we say that language studies in those times were scientific? Of course we cannot.  These were just mentalist thoughts went hand in hand with philosophy and logic. Chomsky never denied that he benefited from these rationalist philosophers. What Chomsky did was reformulating the notion of UG and including it into linguistics. There are two main approaches to the question of language universals — either in-depth studies of one or a few languages, which is basically Chomsky’s method, or wide-range typological comparisons of a large number of languages, a method favoured by, among others, Greenberg.(9) Here we will see UG in Chomskian sense.

Since about 1980, Chomsky has been elaborating his position and arguing that certain fundamental principles for constructing sentences can be found in all languages and must be part of our genetic endowment , present from birth. (10)

Universal grammar is defined by Chomsky as “the system of principles, conditions, and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages...the essence of human language”(Chomsky, 1978)

From this definiton we infer that natural human languages and of course all of them share basic principles. Chomsky later proposed Principles and Parameters distinction regarding this theory. Chomsky's innateness hypothesis thus has been affecting many multidisciplinary linguistic areas such as Language Acquisition.

Chomsky hold that linguistic structures are too complex to be learnt by domain-general learning processes alone. (Chomsky, 2005) If this system is too complex than instead of learning it, it is more plausible to acquire it. That is to say, linguistic systems are pre-wired in our brain at birth and with sufficient input they activate. Universal Grammar is a biolinguistic approach to language acquisition and usage. It is biolinguistic because this view holds the idea that in the brain there is a specific module responsible for language. That is known as modularity of language.

Whilst early approaches to Universal Grammar predicted that all languages would share specific syntactical features, later revisions of Chomsky’s theory argue that Universal
Grammar would serve as a preselector for all the available grammars, and depending on the
socio-lingual context, the appropriate syntax would be acquired by the infant. (11)

Chomsky (1986) sees Universal Grammar as “an intricate and highly constrained structure” consisting of “various subsystems of principles”.  These include “X-bar theory, binding theory, Case theory, theta theory, bounding theory ... and so forth – each containing certain principles with a limited degree of parametric variation. (12)

Up till now we have seen that Chomsky formulated UG in the modern sense and later he revised his theory. First of all UG is a part of Innateness Hypothesis and according to UG language is not learned but acquired. Linguistic structures are pre-wired in our brain and in time since a human gets input they appear. In additon, there are basic principles shared by all human languages across the world.

There are some criticisms to that model of course. The most notable one is the work of N. Evans and Levinson (2009) They argue that any universals are over-generalisations. They note that UG theorists overlook the enormous linguistic diversity. Furthermore, they think that linguistic universals are dependent of specific cultures. Linguistic universals are therefore more like cultural artefacts, rather than being codified in the human genome. (13) Nevertheless UG has been an important milestone in linguistics.

In conclusion the idea of UG could be seen even in mediaeval philosophy pioneered by some rationalist intellectuals. Then it was interrupted by structuralism and behaviorism in 20th century. Later Chomsky in late twenties made great criticisms to behaviorism and he insisted on rationalism. From than on nativist approaches have been adopted by linguists in language studies. As a part of his philosophy and thinking he developed the notion of UG and revised it many times. Still linguistic trend is UG even if there are criticisms mainly by cognitive linguists.


1) Trask,R.L. 1999. Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics. Routledge. Pg. 329
2) Campbell, Lyle. 2011. The History of Linguistics. Blackwell Reference Online.
3) Silva, Jose Felipe. 2011. Robert Kilwardby. Encyclopedia of Mediaeval Philosophy. Pg. 1148-1153
4) Ranta, Aarne. Type Theory and Universal Grammar.
5) www.iep.utm.edu./bacon-la/#SH5b Roger Bacon: Language.
6)Garnham, Alan. Garrod,Simon. Sanford Anthony. 2006. Handbook of Psycholinguistic. Pg. 2
7) Campbell, Lyle. 2011. The History of Linguistics. Blackwell Reference Online
8) Campbell, Lyle. 2011. The History of Linguistics. Blackwell Reference Online
9) Johansson, Sverker. 1991. Universal Grammar and the Innateness Hypothesis.
10) Trask,R.L. 1999. Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics. Routledge. Pg. 329
11) Kliesch, Christian. 2012. Making Sense of Syntax- Innate or Acquired? Journal of European Psychology Students. Vol. 3 Pg. 89
12) Dabrowska, Ewa. What Exactly is Universal Grammar and Has Anyone Seen It?
13) ) Kliesch, Christian. 2012. Making Sense of Syntax- Innate or Acquired? Journal of European Psychology Students. Vol. 3 Pg. 89-90

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