Universal Grammar (UG) is the controversial idea that language is a universal, evolved and specific capacity for learning and arranging grammatical constructions, hard-wired into our brains. Under UG the ability for human beings to learn language is specific, in that it is its own kind of intelligence, and not just a general product of our being more cognitively able than other species. For subscribers to the theory, language is an instinct rather than a learned behaviour. Indeed, the seminar popular science work on the subject, written by the cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, is called ‘The Language Instinct’.
UG is a hotly contested, even politicised topic of debate among linguists. In fact, it has implications that go much further, and at the heart of the controversy is a kind of nature/nurture debate. However, both sides have a tendency to muddy the waters, by misinterpretation, misrepresentation, straw man arguments, and general rancour that serves only to hinder real discussion and research. In this introduction we’ll try and keep things as clear as possible, and give an overview of the topic, to be expanded on in later pieces.
Origins of Universal Grammar
Noam Chomsky, now better known as commentator and activist, also happens to be the most important figure in linguists of this or perhaps any other era. While researching linguistics at Harvard in the 1950s, Chomsky was critical of the established behaviourist theory of language prevailing at the time. The behaviourist view of language is essentially that it is a learned behaviour like any other – we learn through trial and error and the experiences of positive and negative stimuli, using our general intelligence to navigate its complexity.
There is a complex history of scholarship that leads to the emergence of UG. Noam Chomsky is usually credited with its creation, but there are lots of ideas that formed it – too various and complex to go into here. However, it was during the ‘linguistic wars’ of the 1950s-70s that the theory came into being in its present form.
The arguments for
By the far the most famous – perhaps due to its attractive elegance and simplicity – argument for UG is the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ idea. Infants start to learn languages at the earliest stages of cognitive development, and language is a very complex system requiring huge cognitive ability. Not only that, what infants are exposed to is not standardised written language, but choppy, grammatically complex speech that often relies on context for its meaning. And yet, it doesn’t take long before infants become toddlers and toddlers become proficient in their mother tongue.
As well as this, children in the process of learning to communicate exhibit signs that they are working out a grammar for themselves, and not just imitating and learning through trial and error. When a child says ‘he giggled me’ they are not imitating an adult, they are working with rules of grammar and miss-applying them. UG argues that this would not be possible without some kind of predisposition – a toolkit that can be applied to any of the world’s 6000+ languages, no matter which one happens to be the one you’re exposed to from birth.
This is a compelling argument, partly because we know how difficult it is to learn languages as adults – young children, with brains in their early stages of development, seem to do it with ease.
Other arguments come from evidence that specific parts of brain clearly have something to do with certain aspects of language. We can tell this by studying those with language impairment disorders that are the results of localised brain damage. Damage to Broca’s area of the brain is strongly linked with global aphasia, which is a severe difficulty in forming, repeating or comprehending speech. Sufferers use meaningful, often correct words in a non-fluent, telegraphic way, with a powerful suggestion that they have the lost the ability to process grammar. Damage to Wernike’s area, on the other hand, results in fluent aphasia, whereby the speaker will connect words together in a way that is grammatical, but doesn’t make sense. It is the vocabulary itself that seems to have been rearranged.
With material areas of the brain seemingly dedicated to particular elements of language, it’s easy to imagine the ability to decode grammar living in a physical structure, a kind of neural circuitry that human beings are genetically coded to possess.
The arguments against
The argument against UG revolves around its lack of material, scientific evidence. No area of the brain has been shown to house an ability to understand grammar. The areas of the brain mentioned above have several other functions, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the idea of one area of the brain being dedicated to one task is a serious error and simplification of how the human brain operates. That said, UG doesn’t exactly claim that an area of the brain you could hold in the palm of your hand is responsible for grammar. However, the material presence of UG remains elusive.
Opponents of UG also argue that it is simply not necessary for us to have a specific instinct for language in order to find it easy to learn. With a working memory to process the order of words at the level of a sentence, and a pre-fontal cortex that allows us to learn through symbols, we can reach fluency through trial and error. It has been argued that the way children learn language is in fact a complex process of trial and error, which is why the complexity of their speech can be seen to gradually increase.
The idea of language being an instinct has also been refuted. If it were an instinct, it is argued, external stimuli would not be necessary for it to manifest. A spider doesn’t observe other spiders in order to learn to spin a web, but a child learning a language needs a basis from which to learn.
However, the most heated opposition and the reason why UG is such a politicised topic, comes from linguists who maintain language is a product of human culture. It is thought that a necessary conclusion of UG is that languages are essentially arbitrary vehicles of thought, and that their differences are trivial compared to underlying structure that they all share. For many, the idea that language and culture are separate isn’t just counter-intuitive, but actually unpleasant. Many linguists are adamant that the structure of the language we speak shapes the way we see the world. UG counters this claim.
On both sides of the argument there are flaws, tensions and questions that deserve thorough answers. There are also misunderstandings that should be unpicked. In the next blog about UG, we’ll go into more detail about confusions in how the idea is presented and argued about, and how sometimes its elusive nature can be suspicious. In the one after, we’ll discuss how opponents of UG are often arguing against a straw man.
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