Universal Grammar

From: Lewis L.M. (lml195@soton.ac.uk)
Date: Wed May 22 1996 - 11:27:21 BST

Question 27 What is Universal Grammar ? Lewis M Lewis

Professor B.F.Skinner's theory of language learning claimed that it was
the result of shaping by trial and error, and reward feedback. This
theory however proves unsatisfactory when applied to syntax. Children
learning to use language simply do not hear examples of syntacticly
incorrect sentences ; there is a poverty of stimulus. They receive only
positive evidence - so if they are not told what is outside the
category how is it that they know what not to say ?
The answer is Universal Grammar (UG). UG applies to all languages,
after a small amount of parameter setting, and is an innate ability.
N.Chomsky, the original proponent of UG, argued that all languages have
a common or universal core. The general form and even some of the
substantive features of the grammar of particular languages overlap
with those of all other languages ; that is, they are determined by the
nature of the mental structures and processes which characterise human
beings. Chomsky argued that there are both substantive universal
aspects of language and formal universal aspects. The substantive
universals refer to the nature of the phonological, syntactic and
semantic units of which language is composed. He suggested that all
languages have a particular set of syntactic classes such as nouns and
verbs, or subject and object. Formal universals refer to the form of
the rules which will appear in the grammar. Transformational rules, for
example, may be required to handle the syntactic component of the
grammar satisfactorily.
The assumption from these claims is that all languages have some
 commomalities and that a theory of language should include these
commonalities in such a way that any specific language may be seen as
merely a variant of language in general. Chomsky and subsequent
linguists are looking for those elements of language, one of which is
UG, which provide insights across languages rather than merely within a

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Feb 13 2001 - 16:23:42 GMT