Universal Grammar For Dummies.

If you are even slightly interested in language and linguistics, chances are you heard the term Universal Grammar a fair amount of times. It is a central concept in modern linguistics and the most controversial. It is a term that was born in the pursuit of trying to answer some very fundamental and old questions about language. But what exactly is Universal Grammar? 

Short version: 

Simply put, Universal Grammar (UG) is the idea that all human languages share the same fundamental principles. It’s mostly associated with Noam Chomsky and is inseparable from the poverty of the stimulus argument and the innateness hypothesis.

Long version:

This idea is primarily borne out of observations made on first language acquisition research. See, our children acquire their native language(s) at a psychologically breakneck pace, which most linguists and psychologists generally agree on. Chomsky noted that children acquire linguistic features that their parents very rarely produce, if ever, and at a consistently rapid pace. He then argued that children somehow manage to pick up the full features of their native language(s) even though their parents usually never provide such thorough input.

This argument suggested to Chomsky and his proponents that there must necessarily be a genetic/neurological component to first language acquisition. It makes sense; children acquire 90–95% of their native language(s) even though the input from their parents usually only ever provides 60–70% of the language (note: I’m just pulling numbers out of thin air here, but you get the idea). How is this possible? If you asked Chomsky, the logical answer is that there must be some sort of linguistic blueprint embedded in our genes, psychologically realized in our brains, and that basically our children are born already knowing the basic principles of human language, which are then completed with the help of the parents’ input. 

Chomksy goes further than that. He claims that said linguistic blueprint is universal, that the rules and principles contained in it are part of the human DNA and are thus shared by all members of our species, regardless of any ethnolinguistic differences. That linguistic blueprint is the most basic rules of grammar, of human language, and we are all born with it. It is only with input from our parents (who, of course, speak different languages) that children acquire different languages. But the fundamentals are all the same, they are universal. It is the universal grammar and it’s in all of us.

Or so Chomsky and his proponents would have you believe.

There are of course linguists who don’t buy into it this premise, and it was subjected to heavy scrutiny. Thus, over the years, more and more aspects of Chomsky’s proposed Universal Grammar have been falsified, and by this point, UG’s claims have become so vague and abstract that it stops making any meaningful, testable sense, according to UG critics. They think that UG as a theory is indeed neat, but it’s a little too neat, and over the decades defending it has become more trial-and-error than anything else.

Maybe UG really does exist. Who knows, maybe in 50 years’ time we’ll have a clearer understanding of how the hell our children can acquire language at such blinding speeds, and it really is all because of a neurological linguistic blueprint inherent in our species. Or maybe it doesn’t. Or we may never know.

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Read more: What Can You do With a Degree in Linguistics.


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