Universal Grammar

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Universal Grammar

Post  TEFL Teacher on Sun Apr 22, 2012 6:57 am

In linguistics, the theory of universal grammar holds that there are certain fundamental grammatical ideas which all humans possess, without having to learn them. Universal grammar acts as a way to explain how language acquisition works in humans, by showing the most basic rules that all languages have to follow.

The basic idea of universal grammar, that there are foundational rules in common among all humans, has been around since the 13th century. In the following centuries this idea led many philosophers to try to design a perfect language from the ground up, taking into account what they felt were the core principles of all languages.

The most famous theory of the idea of a universal grammar was put forth by the linguist Noam Chomsky in the 1950s. Chomsky held that there was a universal grammar hardwired into the brain of all humans, and that all human languages had evolved on top of that universal grammar, and that children learned their native languages using the universal grammar as a support structure.

One of the main impetuses for the development of a modern theory of universal grammar is the question of how early language learners know that certain phrases are ungrammatical. Children acquire language by listening to native speakers around them. But, by virtue of being proficient speakers, native speakers don’t go around saying everything that is ungrammatical and saying it’s wrong. This is often called the Poverty of Stimulus argument, and universal grammar attempts to explain it by saying that a number of these restrictions are part of a universal grammar.

Universal grammar does not attempt to lay out many blanket statements that hold true for every single language on Earth. If it did that, after all, we would expect most languages to be roughly the same. Instead, we find an incredible range of languages. Instead, what a universal grammar seeks to do is to lay out propositions of the form, “If X is true, then Y will be true.” These structures lay out how all languages develop when faced with certain basic principles. Using these structures, students of universal grammar can attempt to state what word order a language might choose, what phonemes will be present, and other foundational traits of the language.

Another argument commonly leveled against universal grammar is that the theory itself is not actually falsifiable. Although it claims to be able to predict what new languages will be like, the sample size is small enough that when new languages are discovered the rules laid out must sometimes adapt to fit the new data. This would seem to undermine its validity as a strong predictive theory, making it more a cohesive set of observations about what we already know to be true.

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Re: Universal Grammar

Post  TEFL Teacher on Sun Apr 22, 2012 7:00 am

Chomsky and the Universal Grammar
(Don Cruse)

Noam Chomsky is well known on two fronts, as a philosopher and as a social thinker. He is justifiably famous today for his efforts to combat social injustice, which has led him to present a radical critique of the institutions of power in modern society. His fame initially arose, however, from his work as a linguistic philosopher and his still controversial suggestion that the human brain is somehow equipped at birth with a Universal Grammar out of which all human languages later develop. It is mainly with regard to this aspect of Chomsky's thought that I wish to comment here.

The human brain is indeed a remarkable organ, consisting as it does of billions upon billions of nerve cells that are daily dying and being replaced in vast numbers, but still for most of us retains its coherent function throughout our lives. There are two radically opposite accounts, however, of what that function is. The first and most familiar is that the brain is a thought generator, and its ability to function as such has developed incrementally and accidentally over billions of years in the manner described in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The second view is the one most effectively presented in the work of Rudolf Steiner, who insists that the brain's primary function is not to be a generator of thought, but an organ of perception, and that what it perceives is the spiritual 'inside' of all matter, which he tells us is what thought really is, a proposition now beginning to be borne out in Quantum Physics. This view and some of its many ramifications has been clearly represented to the modern mind in the work of the late Owen Barfield.

In the first (materialistic) account the brain function is analogous to that of a computer, and even though the brain is immensely complex, recent developments in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI) have convinced many that it will soon become obsolete, and that this obsolescence will eventually apply to mankind itself.(See Christopher Dowden: "Last Flesh", Harper/Collins, Toronto, 1998). There are aspects of modern brain research, however, which suggest that this might not be the case, and that we have in fact barely begun to understand the brain's true function. Important in this respect has been the work of the Stanford University neurologist Karl Pibram, whose study of how memories are stored in the brain led him to postulate that the brain operates on a holographic basis wherein 'the whole is present in every part,' and suggesting that the real repository of memory is not the brain cells but somewhere outside of the brain. This ties together with the work of the physicists Alain Aspect and David Bohm in postulating a holographic background to the entire physical universe. (See The Universe as a Hologram).

This all suggests that Rudolf Steiner's description of brain function may well be the true one. How might this possibility affect the work of Noam Chomsky?

One of the great mysteries of human understanding, the one that has puzzled many of the twentieth century's greatest minds, not least among them Albert Einstein, has to do with the manner in which thought maps itself onto external reality. The following quotation describes this seemingly insoluble problem:

"No scientist working today can deny that aesthetics, something that is purely a product of the inward reality of our consciousness, also provides us with a map for discovering the outward reality of the universe. But why is this so?...Or as Yale biophysicist Harold Morowitz has put it, why is it, when we work through Newton's second law of motion for the first time, we get the a feeling of a return to some primordial knowledge?"...As Einstein wrote in 1921, "Here arises a puzzle that has disturbed scientists of all periods. How is it possible that mathematics, a product of human thought that is independent of experience, fits so excellently the objects of physical reality? Can human reason without experience discover by pure thinking the properties of things? "

Wigner concluded that the structure of mathematics and the structure of the physical universe are disturbingly similar. Wigner capped off his paper with a quote from the late philosopher Charles Pierce "that there is some secret here which remains to be discovered". Quoted by John Cafferky in "Evolution as Hand: Searching for the Creator in Contemporary Science". East End Books, Toronto, 1997, p 17.

Rudolf Steiner's answer to this problem is straightforward and revealing. Thought maps so well onto external reality because, in its very essence, it is that reality. He describes how in the course of our evolution human consciousness has developed from an early unselfconscious state of deep 'participation' in nature's inwardness, which we still find today in the animal kingdom, to one of progressive isolation and alienation from nature, and from each other, out of which developed individualism, which in turn makes human freedom possible. Nature, he tells us, still lives in our consciousness, but not in the vital and overpowering way that it once did. The tide of nature's vital inner reality has all but completely withdrawn from our conscious minds, and has left only its skeletal remnant, as it were, on the shores of human consciousness, and this skeletal remnant is what we call 'logic'.

As Steiner describes the act of cognition, the world comes to us not from just one direction, as has long been assumed in philosphic materialism, but from two opposite directions. Sense-born percepts are private, in that they are the product of our external sense organs, which are different for each of us, and because we each must occupy a different point in space. Percepts, however, do not carry their conceptual content with them, and without that content the world remains meaningless to us.

Ideas or concepts become a part of the cognitive act through the brain's capacity as an organ of sense for spiritual reality, i.e. for thought, which is the spiritual 'inside' of everything that is real. All ideas and concepts, therefore, have a universal or 'public' content in addition to the private content which we give them when we marry them, correctly or incorrectly, to our private world of percepts, and to the mental content, true or false, that we have already made into our own 'world-view'. He tells us that the seeming paradox "I think, yet the world thinks in me" is a profound truth, and that any truly critical introspective study of the cognitive act will show this to be the case. He insists that the modern world has been almost totally blinded to this truth by the prevalence of materialistic assumptions in science and philosophy, i.e. by the view that ideas and concepts are merely the end-products of physical sense stimulation. Given this assumption, even great minds like Albert Einstein are left to impotently wonder why it is that human thought, seen as an entirely subjective activity, maps onto external reality in so remarkable a manner.

A similar dilemma confronts Noam Chomsky, but this time in relation to internal reality. As already mentioned, he has argued persuasively for the existence of a Universal Grammar out of which all human languages are born, but as a materialist he is required to believe (1) that this grammar is somehow concealed in the physical workings of the brain itself, and (2) that it is the end-product of a succession of evolutionary accidents (DNA mutations) occurring in Darwinian fashion over countless millions of years. There is little or no convincing evidence that either of these propositions is true, but as a materialist, i.e as one who subscribes to the direction of causal logic implicit in a Monism of Matter, (See my article 'Causal Logic: Dualism and the Two Monisms' in the Nov/Dec, 2000 issue of SouthernCross Review), Chomsky has no alternative but to accept them. In accepting them, however, he is faced with the task of explaining how this Universal Grammar might operate. He does this, as do materialists the world over, by making use of mechanistic imagery:

We may think of UG as an intricately structured system, but one that is only partially "wired up". The system is associated with a finite set of switches, each of which has a finite number of positions (perhaps two). Experience is required to set the switches. When they are set, the system functions.

("Chomsky for Beginners", John Masher and Judy Groves, Icon Books, Cambridge, UK, 1996, p.106.)

In several of my recent articles I have argued, I believe convincingly, that the use of mechanistic imagery in attempting to explain or to 'prove' materialistic assumptions, involves a profound historical error in causal logic. An error which arose when materialism first turned Descartes' philosophical dualism into a Monism of Matter by removing the concept of 'God the Designer,' but all the while continuing to use the language of design, which was all that really mattered. Later, when the word 'mechanistic' became a dictionary definition for materialism, an assumed Monism of Matter, no one any longer questioned its entitlement to the use of such imagery, or the use of intentional idioms. In fact, mechanistic imagery and intentional idioms are logically inadmissible to materialism's basic argument, because they serve merely to substitute human creativity for universal or divine creativity, the existence of which materialism seeks to deny. (See Don Cruse 'Design in Nature and Purpose in Language' in Elemente der Naturwissenschaft, Vol. 72, Toil 2, 1999.)

Mankind did not create the universe, but to make the use of mechanistic imagery and intentional idioms logically acceptable in the defense or explanation of materialism, we would need to have done so. The fact that language cannot rationally be used in defense of materialism, says something about its deeper nature and origin, and it is this 'something' that Chomsky comes close to with his idea of a Universal Grammar.

There may have been a profound underlying reason for the historical error referred to above, indeed it may have been a kind of necessity. Steiner suggests that the task of materialism has been the development of individualism, and also to teach humanity the use of the scientific method. This discipline, once learned in relation to matter, may then be applied to realities beyond the physical realm. For this proposition to be true, early thinkers needed to be convinced that matter was the sum of everything that was real, otherwise they would not have taken it seriously enough to make it the primary focus of their attention, and what better way (for world destiny) to accomplish this than the above mentioned linguistic and logical oversight? This may also be why science was first developed in Europe and the West, and not by the often more sophisticated cultures to the East, because in the East, until quite recently, matter was widely held to be 'maya,' or illusion.

The error to which I have drawn attention then, may have arisen simply to permit a necessary growth in human understanding, which has never been a mere linear development out of ignorance as so many still assume, and could easily have required a movement first in one direction and then in another, just as a sailing ship makes forward progress by tacking into the wind. That this would suggest a spiritual guidance in human affairs, may seem an affront to our now acute sense of individualism, but this feeling may not be justified. It was in this context that Rudolf Steiner often drew attention to Gotthold Lessing's now little read 'Essay on the Education of the Human Race'. (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1728-81) German dramatist and essayist.)

Grammar is the logic of language, and by claiming that a Universal Grammar exists, Noam Chomsky is drawing attention to the same problem that so worried Einstein, Morowitz, Wigner et al. Namely, that the human mind appears somehow to have access to a non-personal and therefore universal reality.

Time will show, and I suspect very soon, that this reality does not exist in the manner that materialism requires it to do, i.e. that it is not something concealed in the substance of the brain cells and accidentally arrived at by the blind creativity suggested in Darwin's theory. It derives instead from the spiritual creativity working inside nature, and to which, unbeknownst to most of us, the power of thinking has all along permitted us direct and immediate access, because, as Rudolf Steiner makes clear, thinking precedes the distinction between subject and object, and therefore is not, as has been widely assumed, a purely subjective activity. This is the reality pointed to in Steiner's claim "I think, yet the world also thinks in me," and by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's assertion that both light and thought are universal, and that 'intuition is to thinking what observation is to seeing'..

Religious tradition has long contended that the Word or Logos is the universal creative force to which we owe both our own existence and that of the universe in which we live. It would make sense, therefore, that this might also be the source of Chomsky's Universal Grammar. But such matters cannot be left at the level of religious belief. It must be possible, in a manner that is scientifically acceptable, to make them the subject of critical knowledge arrived at through each individual's higher cognitive development, and through the consequent higher application of the scientific method. If Steiner is to be believed, higher cognitive development is possible, although by no means easy.

(See Rudolf Steiner: Knowledge of Higher Worlds, How it is Attained, Rudolf Steiner Press, London.) But first we will need the necessary openness of mind to begin to take his work seriously.

Also, if what I have said concerning the role of the word 'mechanism' is correct, then it will need to be admitted that modern science and philosophy have become trapped, by a kind of necessity, into falsely believing that to allow even a foothold for divine creativity must lead to the abandonment of science. Rudolf Steiner, through his life's work, has shown that for modern man religious tradition is neither the only nor the best source of spiritual truth, and that in future the application of the scientific method can, and for our humanity's sake must, extend far beyond the narrow confines of materialistic thought.

Imagination, as Owen Barfield never tired of explaining in his many works, is not merely 'faded sense;' it is a vital cognitive faculty which links the human mind directly to the ever-evolving Logos. It is the link, as Goethe so well demonstrated, by means of which human consciousness can itself evolve upward towards a deeper cognitive comprehension of the divine creative forces that are at work everywhere in nature, and that also work, as Noam Chomsky has partially understood, within the human mind itself.

Not only is the source of all logic inexplicable to a science that limits itself to the material world, it is also the case that the very word 'matter,' without the opposite concept 'spirit,' can be shown to have no conceptual validity. This was a central theme in Owen Barfield's work.

(See for example the article 'Matter, Imagination and Spirit' by Owen Barfield, originally published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1974, and later in Barfield's work "The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays", Wesleyan University Press, Middletown Connecticut, 1977.

Chomsky states that science effectively ceased to be based on a Monism of Matter after Newton introduced the "occult" concept of gravity into the mechanical philosophy of his day, the wider ramifications of which step had greatly disturbed him.

Einstein also, in his lifelong but unsuccessful search for what has been called the Holy Grail of physics, 'the final field theory' observed that this task had been made much more difficult by the fact that Newton had replaced touch with action at a distance.

Both of these honored gentlemen, in my view, have stopped short of the essential realization that where causal logic is concerned a Monism of Matter is and always was a false world view, which ultimately will need to be replaced by a Monism of Mind, so that by unconsciously discrediting it Newton did us all a great favour. However, until we recognise this, the dead Monism of Matter passed on to us by Newton will still not lie down; its ghost will continue to haunt both science and philosophy, and to perpetuate an unjustified materialism which can only be maintained by our attempting to discredit or ignore causal logic.

John R. Searle, for example, in his influential work "The Rediscovery Of The Mind", (MIT Press, 1994), argues that the causal concepts of 'monism' and 'dualism' should now be completely abandoned, which if successful would leave all future argument unaccountable to causal logic, allowing free reign to his assumed but unproven materialism.

As I have sought to show here, such a materialistic philosophy can really explain nothing, and moreover requires for its continuation, as is the case with Darwinism, the false logic concealed in our centuries-old misuse of the word 'mechanism,'.

Science may soon be called upon to formally change the direction of its usually unspoken causal logic, and to adopt a critical Monism of Mind or thought in place of the now redundant but still widely accepted Monism of Matter. If I am right, this will happen because the integrity of science and of scientists makes it untenable to do otherwise, but it can hardly fail to be a very stressful and traumatic transition.

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Re: Universal Grammar

Post  TEFL Teacher on Sun Apr 22, 2012 7:09 am

Article from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar):

Universal grammar is a theory in linguistics that suggests that there are properties that all possible natural human languages have. Usually credited to Noam Chomsky, the theory suggests that some rules of grammar are hard-wired into the brain, and manifest themselves without being taught. There is still much argument whether there is such a thing and what it would be.


If human beings growing up under normal conditions (not conditions of extreme deprivation) always develop a language with property X (for example, distinguishing nouns from verbs, or distinguishing function words from lexical words) then property X is a property of universal grammar in this most general sense (here not capitalized).

There are theoretical senses of the term Universal Grammar as well (here capitalized). The most general of these would be that Universal Grammar is whatever properties of a normally developing human brain cause it to learn languages that conform to universal grammar (the non-capitalized, pretheoretical sense). Using the above examples, Universal Grammar would be the property that the brain has that causes it to posit a difference between nouns and verbs whenever presented with linguistic data.

As Chomsky puts it, "Evidently, development of language in the individual must involve three factors: (1) genetic endowment, which sets limits on the attainable languages, thereby making language acquisition possible; (2) external data, converted to the experience that selects one or another language within a narrow range; (3) principles not specific to FL." [FL is the faculty of language, whatever properties of the brain cause it to learn language.] So (1) is Universal Grammar in the first theoretical sense, (2) is the linguistic data to which the child is exposed.

Sometimes aspects of Universal Grammar in this sense seem to be describable in terms of general facts about cognition. For example, if a predisposition to categorize events and objects as different classes of things is part of human cognition, and as a direct result nouns and verbs show up in all languages, then it could be said that this aspect of Universal Grammar is not specific to language, but is part of cognition more generally. To distinguish properties of languages that can be traced to other facts about cognition from properties of languages that cannot, the abbreviation UG* can be used. UG is the term often used by Chomsky for those aspects of the human brain which cause language to be the way it is (i.e. are Universal Grammar in the sense used here) but here for discussion it is used for those aspects which are furthermore specific to language (thus UG, as Chomsky uses it, is just an abbreviation for Universal Grammar, but UG* as used here is a subset of Universal Grammar).

In the same article, Chomsky casts the theme of a larger research program in terms of the following question: "How little can be attributed to UG while still accounting for the variety of I-languages attained, relying on third factor principles?" (I-languages meaning internal languages, the brain states that correspond to knowing how to speak and understand a particular language, and third factor principles meaning (3) in the previous quote).

Chomsky has speculated that UG might be extremely simple and abstract, for example only a mechanism for combining symbols in a particular way, which he calls Merge. To see that Chomsky does not use the term "UG" in the narrow sense UG* suggested above, consider the following quote from the same article:

"The conclusion that Merge falls within UG holds whether such recursive generation is unique to FL or is appropriated from other systems."

I.e. Merge is part of UG because it causes language to be the way it is, is universal, and is not part of (2) (the environment) or (3) (general properties independent of genetics and environment). Merge is part of Universal Grammar whether it is specific to language or whether, as Chomsky suggests, it is also used for example in mathematical thinking.

The distinction is important because there is a long history of argument about UG*, whereas most people working on language agree that there is Universal Grammar. Many people assume that Chomsky means UG* when he writes UG (and in some cases he might actually mean UG*, though not in the passage quoted above).

Some students of universal grammar study a variety of grammars to abstract generalizations called linguistic universals, often in the form of "If X holds true, then Y occurs." These have been extended to a variety of traits, such as the phonemes found in languages, what word orders languages choose, and why children exhibit certain linguistic behaviors.

The idea can be traced to Roger Bacon's observation that all languages are built upon a common grammar, substantially the same in all languages, even though it may undergo in them accidental variations, and the 13th century speculative grammarians who, following Bacon, postulated universal rules underlying all grammars. The concept of a universal grammar or language was at the core of the 17th century projects for philosophical languages. The 18th century in Scotland saw the emergence of a vigorous universal grammar school. Later linguists who have influenced this theory include Noam Chomsky and Richard Montague, developing their version of the theory as they considered issues of the Argument from poverty of the stimulus to arise from the constructivist approach to linguistic theory. The application of the idea to the area of second language acquisition (SLA) is represented mainly by the McGill linguist Lydia White.

Most syntacticians generally concede that there are parametric points of variation between languages, although heated debate occurs over whether UG constraints are essentially universal due to being "hard-wired" (Chomsky's Principles and Parameters approach), a logical consequence of a specific syntactic architecture (the Generalized Phrase Structure approach) or the result of functional constraints on communication (the functionalist approach).


The idea of a universal grammar can be traced to Roger Bacon's observation that all languages are built upon a common grammar, substantially the same in all languages, even though it may undergo accidental variations, and the 13th century speculative grammarians who, following Bacon, postulated universal rules underlying all grammars. The concept of a universal grammar or language was at the core of the 17th century projects for philosophical languages. There is a Scottish school of universal grammarians from the 18th century, to be distinguished from the philosophical language project, and including authors such as James Beattie, Hugh Blair, James Burnett, James Harris, and Adam Smith. The article on "Grammar" in the first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1771) contains an extensive section titled "Of Universal Grammar."

The idea rose to notability in modern linguistics with theorists such as Noam Chomsky and Richard Montague, developed in the 1950s to 1970s, as part of the "Linguistics Wars".

During the early 20th century, in contrast, language was usually understood from a behaviourist perspective, suggesting that language learning, like any other kind of learning, could be explained by a succession of trials, errors, and rewards for success. In other words, children learned their mother tongue by simple imitation, listening to and repeating what adults said.

Chomsky's theory

Further information: Language acquisition device, Generative grammar, X-bar theory, Government and Binding, Principles and parameters, and Minimalist Program

Linguist Noam Chomsky made the argument that the human brain contains a limited set of rules for organizing language. In turn, there is an assumption that all languages have a common structural basis. This set of rules is known as universal grammar.

Speakers proficient in a language know what expressions are acceptable in their language and what expressions are unacceptable. The key puzzle is how speakers should come to know the restrictions of their language, since expressions which violate those restrictions are not present in the input, indicated as such. This absence of negative evidence—that is, absence of evidence that an expression is part of a class of the ungrammatical sentences in one's language—is the core of the poverty of stimulus argument. For example, in English one cannot relate a question word like 'what' to a predicate within a relative clause (1):

(1) *What did John meet a man who sold?

Such expressions are not available to the language learners, because they are, by hypothesis, ungrammatical for speakers of the local language. Speakers of the local language do not utter such expressions and note that they are unacceptable to language learners. Universal grammar offers a solution to the poverty of the stimulus problem by making certain restrictions universal characteristics of human languages. Language learners are consequently never tempted to generalize in an illicit fashion.

Presence of creole languages

The presence of creole languages is sometimes cited as further support for this theory, especially by Bickerton's controversial language bioprogram theory. Creoles are languages that are developed and formed when different societies come together and are forced to devise their own system of communication. The system used by the original speakers is typically an inconsistent mix of vocabulary items known as a pidgin. As these speakers' children begin to acquire their first language, they use the pidgin input to effectively create their own original language, known as a creole. Unlike pidgins, creoles have native speakers and make use of a full grammar.

According to Bickerton, the idea of universal grammar is supported by creole languages because certain features are shared by virtually all of these languages. For example, their default point of reference in time (expressed by bare verb stems) is not the present moment, but the past. Using pre-verbal auxiliaries, they uniformly express tense, aspect, and mood. Negative concord occurs, but it affects the verbal subject (as opposed to the object, as it does in languages like Spanish). Another similarity among creoles is that questions are created simply by changing a declarative sentence's intonation, not its word order or content.

However, extensive work by Carla Hudson-Kam and Elissa Newport suggests that creole languages may not support a universal grammar, as has sometimes been supposed. In a series of experiments, Hudson-Kam and Newport looked at how children and adults learn artificial grammars. Notably, they found that children tend to ignore minor variations in the input when those variations are infrequent, and reproduce only the most frequent forms. In doing so, they tend to standardize the language that they hear around them. Hudson-Kam and Newport hypothesize that in a pidgin situation (and in the real life situation of a deaf child whose parents were disfluent signers), children are systematizing the language they hear based on the probability and frequency of forms, and not, as has been suggested on the basis of a universal grammar. Further, it seems unsurprising that creoles would share features with the languages they are derived from and thus look similar "grammatically."


Since their inception, universal grammar theories have been subjected to vocal and sustained criticism. In recent years, with the advent of more sophisticated brands of computational modeling and more innovative approaches to the study of language acquisition, these criticisms have multiplied.

Geoffrey Sampson maintains that universal grammar theories are not falsifiable and are therefore pseudoscientific theory. He argues that the grammatical "rules" linguists posit are simply post-hoc observations about existing languages, rather than predictions about what is possible in a language. Similarly, Jeffrey Elman argues that the unlearnability of languages assumed by Universal Grammar is based on a too-strict, "worst-case" model of grammar, that is not in keeping with any actual grammar. In keeping with these points, James Hurford argues that the postulate of a language acquisition device (LAD) essentially amounts to the trivial claim that languages are learnt by humans, and thus, that the LAD is less a theory than an explanandum looking for theories.

Sampson, Roediger, Elman and Hurford are hardly alone in suggesting that several of the basic assumptions of Universal Grammar are unfounded. Indeed, a growing number of language acquisition researchers argue that the very idea of a strict rule-based grammar in any language flies in the face of what is known about how languages are spoken and how languages evolve over time. For instance, Morten Christiansen and Nick Chater have argued that the relatively fast-changing nature of language would prevent the slower-changing genetic structures from ever catching up, undermining the possibility of a genetically hard-wired universal grammar. In addition, it has been suggested that people learn about probabilistic patterns of word distributions in their language, rather than hard and fast rules (see the distributional hypothesis). It has also been proposed that the poverty of the stimulus problem can be largely avoided, if we assume that children employ similarity-based generalization strategies in language learning, generalizing about the usage of new words from similar words that they already know how to use.

Another way of defusing the poverty of the stimulus argument is to assume that if language learners notice the absence of classes of expressions in the input, they will hypothesize a restriction (a solution closely related to Bayesian reasoning). In a similar vein, language acquisition researcher Michael Ramscar has suggested that when children erroneously expect an ungrammatical form that then never occurs, the repeated failure of expectation serves as a form of implicit negative feedback that allows them to correct their errors over time. This implies that word learning is a probabilistic, error-driven process, rather than a process of fast mapping, as many nativists assume.

Finally, in the domain of field research, the Pirahã language is claimed to be a counterexample to the basic tenets of Universal Grammar. This research has been primarily led by Daniel Everett, a former Christian missionary. Among other things, this language is alleged to lack all evidence for recursion, including embedded clauses, as well as quantifiers and color terms. Some other linguists have argued, however, that some of these properties have been misanalyzed, and that others are actually expected under current theories of Universal Grammar. While most languages studied in that respect do indeed seem to share common underlying rules, research is hampered by considerable sampling bias. Linguistically, most diverse areas such as tropical Africa and America, as well as the diversity of Indigenous Australian and Papuan languages, have been insufficiently studied. Furthermore, language extinction has disproportionately affected some areas.


Universal Grammar is made up of a set of rules that apply to most or all natural human languages. Most of these rules come in the form of "if a language has a feature X, it will also have the feature Y." Rules that are widely considered as part of UG include:

- If a language is head-initial (like English), it will have prepositional phrases; if and only if it is head-final (like Japanese) will it have post-positional phrases.
- If a language has a word for purple, it will have a word for red.
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