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Universal Grammar

  Universal grammar (UG), in linguistics, is the syntactic theory developed by Noam Chomsky and his followers in the 1980s. The ultimate goal of UG is to explain how all normal children manage to learn the complexities of their native language in such a short time. This achievement is made more remarkable with the assertion that each child comes to know certain linguistic facts which could not possibly have been learned from the limited samples of language he or she is exposed to. This so-called poverty of the stimulus, nevertheless, does not prevent successful language acquisition, which leads Chomsky to assert that specific aspects of linguistic knowledge must be genetically determined. A note of caution is necessary here, since the presumed poverty of the stimulus is more an article of faith in UG theory than a proven fact.

The child does not inherit knowledge of a particular language, such as Chinese or Swahili, but instead inherits a system of universal grammar, comprising syntactic principles, which underpin the organization of all known (or possible) languages. Although UG principles account for the underlying similarities among human languages, there is nevertheless a manifest wealth of linguistic diversity which also requires explanation. A great deal of this diversity, including details of lexical differences, are described by Chomsky as superficial and unlikely to cause significant problems for the language-learning child. Other aspects of variation, though, are explicable in terms of UG, through the operation of parameters of variation. An example is provided by comparing the order of words in English phrases such as ‘near the post office’, with the Japanese counterpart, in which the word order is reversed to give, literally, ‘post office near’ (yuubinkyoku-no-chikaku). This and many other facts about word order are all explained by a single parameter of variation. English chooses one option for word order, Japanese an alternative option. Crucially, the differences between the two languages stem from a single, universal characteristic of human language. Principles and parameters aim to capture what is syntactically possible in human language. As a result, language-specific rules of grammar, which generate particular sentences, can be abolished. Instead, strings of words are judged to be grammatically well-formed as long as they do not violate any of the precepts of universal grammar. MS

See also learnability; modularity.



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