What exactly is Universal Grammar, and has anyone seen it?

Ewa Dabrowska

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60 Citations (Scopus)
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Universal Grammar (UG) is a suspect concept. There is little agreement on what exactly is in it; and the empirical evidence for it is very weak. This paper critically examines a variety of arguments that have been put forward as evidence for UG, focussing on the three most powerful ones: universality (all human languages share a number of properties), convergence (all language learners converge on the same grammar in spite of the fact that they are exposed to different input), and poverty of the stimulus (children know things about language which they could not have learned from the input available to them). I argue that these arguments are based on premises which are either false or unsubstantiated. Languages differ from each other in profound ways, and there are very few true universals, so the fundamental crosslinguistic fact that needs explaining is diversity, not universality. A number of recent studies have demonstrated the existence of considerable differences in adult native speakers’ knowledge of the grammar of their language, including aspects of inflectional morphology, passives, quantifiers, and a variety of more complex constructions, so learners do not in fact converge on the same grammar. Finally, the poverty of the stimulus argument presupposes that children acquire linguistic representations of the kind postulated by generative grammarians; constructionist grammars such as those proposed by Tomasello, Goldberg and others can be learned from the input. We are the only species that has language, so there must be something unique about humans that makes language learning possible. The extent of crosslinguistic diversity and the considerable individual differences in the rate, style and outcome of acquisition suggest that it is more promising to think in terms of a language-making capacity, i.e., a set of domain-general abilities, rather than an innate body of knowledge about the structural properties of the target system.
Original languageEnglish
Article number852
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jun 2015


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