Welcome. This week’s post discusses the theory of Universal Grammar (UG) and Noam Chomsky’s role in its inception and continual revision.
In the 1980s, Noam Chomsky developed the syntactic theory of Universal Grammar. He was already famous for many other linguistic advances and changes in the field, and until then, supported the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), a theory that he also had a big part in creating. Chomsky’s UG theory evolved from a specific aspect of LAD.
The idea of Universal Grammar proposes that because all human languages share a fundamental set of rules (that have yet to be discovered), a child is born with the ability to learn any language they are exposed to. As Chomsky once explained in his book, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, the “principles” of universal grammar provides “the framework for thought and language, and are common to human languages” (62) which is under the assumption that all known human language carries that framework. There are many pieces of compelling evidence for UG, including, as some studies have revealed, children developing language at around the same rate all over the world.
In an essay analyzing the linguistic aspects of the movie Arrival, Dr. Jessica Coon, a linguist consultant for the movie, supports UG, stating that “by the age of five, nearly every child has mastered a complex system that organizes sounds into sentences.” This essay examines how learning an alien language could be a different process entirely. For the alien creatures in the movie, Heptapods, the “difference between ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs’, is no longer a given” (Coon). This view backs up Chomsky’s famous example of Martians seeing Earth as having different dialects of one planet-wide language (7).
More recently Chomsky and his followers are gravitating toward the minimalist approach, or program, in a further effort to explore UG. The minimalist approach is an attempt to refine the many possibilities of UG and find the most concise use of principles and parameters across languages. A set of rules has not yet been found to ‘prove’ Universal Grammar, so there are still many critics of Chomsky’s current theory.
These critics of UG may find themselves persuaded with the discovery of the “FOXP2” gene, a gene relating to grammar ability and acquisition of language. It is something we have from birth and not something that is learned: physically a part of us (Brems). It might turn out to be part of the “language faculty” in our bodies. This discovery could be the tipping point toward the next step in UG research for either side of the argument.
Now in his late eighties, Noam Chomsky continues to be active in his writing and evolving theories, and because Universal Grammar is one of the most controversial subjects in the field of linguistics now, new findings from him and other linguists and scientists will no doubt continue to change and develop. Chomsky has shown a change of stance before with the right evidence, an unusual trait for so famous a person in the scientific field, so if this stands true for the future, and UG is proven false (or true) in some manner, it is likely he will not criticize, but keep an open mind and ignite intelligent discussion in any direction.
Brems, Bjorn. “Transgenic Mice Humanized FoxP2 and the Timing of Habits” Humanity+. 11 Nov. 2015. Pars. 9-14. www.hplusmagazine.com/2015/11/11/transgenic-mice-humanized-foxp2-and-the-timing-of-habits/. Accessed 26 April 2017.
Chomsky, Noam. “New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind.” Cambridge University Press, 2000. P. 62. Google Books. Accessed 26 April 2017.
Coon, Jessica. “Alien Speak: Linguist Dr Jessica Coon on Villeneuve’s Arrival.” Sloan Science and Film. 11 Nov. 2016. www.scienceandfilm.org/articles/2802/alien-speak-linguist-dr-jessica-coon-on-villeneuves-arrival. Accessed 25 April 2017.
Levine, Diane. “A Concise Introduction to Linguistics” Pearson Education Inc. 2nd edition. 2009. p. 137-138.
Mills, Stephen. "Chomsky, Avram Noam." Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Philosophers, edited by Stuart C. Brown, et al., Routledge, 1st edition, 2002. Credo Reference, http://ezp1r.riosalado.edu/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/routphil/chomsky_avram_noam/0?institutionId=5539. Accessed 24 Apr 2017.