Re: Universal Grammar

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Thu May 30 1996 - 21:49:07 BST

> Date: Wed, 22 May 1996 11:27:21 +0100 (BST)
> From: "Lewis L.M." <>
> 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 ;

Nor do they produce them.

> 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 ?

If they don't know what's NOT in it, then they can't learn what IS in
it. There is no way to check or correct a rule. Since they soon speak
flawlessly, therefore, they cannot have learned the rules but must have
been born with them.

> 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.

He concluded this from the evidence, and the best (and only) available
theory that explained grammatical capacity.

> 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
> language.

A bit repetitious about UG, but basically ok. You meed to link it to
other issues for an A.

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