Universal Grammar in Human Language

Universal Grammar in Human Language

Hu Peng

1. The hypothesis by Chomsky

In 1965, Noam Chomsky proposed a hypothesis about general grammar of all sorts of language in Aspects of the theory of syntax.He written that humans have a cognitive specialization for learning language and he describe this specialization as“inventing,” “constructing,” “developing,”“devising,” and “acquiring” a grammar. So Chomsky believed that every child would develop an internal representation of a system of rules when he or she began to learn languages and speak.

To learn a language, then, the child must have a method for [f-] devising an appropriate grammar, given primary linguistic data. As a precondition for language learning, he must possess, first, a linguistic theory that specifies the form of the grammar of a possible human language, and second, a strategy for selecting a grammar of the appropriate form that is compatible with the primary linguistic data. (Chomsky 1965: 25)

Chomsky, that is to say, conceived that a child if given linguistic data would create a specific grammar to compose his own language instinctively. This instinct and instinctive cognitive structure underpinning the acquisition of knowledge is referred back to rationalist forebears including Descartes, Lord Herbert, Leibniz, and particularly Wilhelm von Humboldt. If we knew that Chomsky’s hypothesis can be trace back to the philosophic viewpoint of rationalists, we would understand his opinions which seemed as bold easily. But his hypothesis was referring to an innate linguistic theory apparently and that’s the reason why he was criticized by other linguists. These criticisms will be discussed in the following text, and now let’s detect Chomsky’s hypothesis about its disadvantages and limitations. That is that his postulation cannot come at all close to making a hypothesis about innate schemata that is rich, detailed, and specific enough to account for the fact of language acquisition and this hypothesis based on the philosophic viewpoint of rationalists can be considered easily as a subjective assumption.

Therefore, the task of Chomsky’s successors“must be to develop an account of linguistic universals that, on the one hand, will not be falsified by the actual diversity of languages and, on the other, will be sufficiently rich and explicit to account for the rapidity and uniformity of language learning, and the remarkable complexity and range of the generative grammars that are the product of language learning”(Ray Jackendoff Foundations of Language pp.71 ). Then we will talk about the development of the theory of Universal Grammar by Chomsky’s inheritors among who Jackendoff was a most remarkable linguist.

2. The main theory of Universal Grammar

In his famous work Foundations of Language,Jackendoff developed Chomsky’s theory and he completed the theory of Universal Grammar.

The first task of Jackendoff was to confirm that the Universal Grammar is exist not

only in one language (such as English or German), but it also be applicable to all languages and the Universal Grammar has a general utility. He wrote that“‘How can Universal Grammar claim to be universal, when (at least at the beginning) it was applied only to English?’”To answer this question, he took Chomsky’s early work for example. “In fact, Chomsky's very earliest work (1951) was on Modern Hebrew; other early work in syntax concerned German (Lees 1960; Bierwisch 1963), Turkish (Lees 1960), Latin (Lakoff 1968), Japanese (Kuroda 1965), and the Native American languages Hidatsa (Matthews 1964) and Mohawk (Postal 1962).”He meant that the theory of Universal Grammar was based on a great deal of surveys on many different linguistic phenomena and this theory had its factual foundations.

But in terms of theoretical creativity, Jackendoff had his own contribution to the theory of UG. He maintained that“Universal Grammar is not supposed to be what is universal among langu ages: it is supposed to be the ‘toolkit’ that a human child brings to learning any of the languages of the world”; “If we find that a certain aspect of linguistic structure is indeed universal, then it is a good candidate for part of Universal Grammar, though other options must also be considered”(FL pp.75)So Jackendoff considered UG as a language “toolkit”,and we are not obliged to use every tool for every job.

“Thus we might expect that not every grammatical mechanism provided by Universal Grammar appears in every language. For instance, some languages make heavy use of case marking, and others don't; some languages make heavy use of fixed word order, and others don't. We would like to say that Universal Grammar makes both these possibilities available to the child; but only the possibilities actually present in the environment come to realization in the child's developing grammar.”(FL pp.75) From above sentences, we can realize that the UG is not an “actual” grammar but an abstract concept which does not belong to any actual language and it behind all actual grammar. In our dairy life we would not use the UG even one time but it is real exist in our every usage of our language. Let’s trace back to the children who begin to learn language and speak. If the child were given some specific linguistic material, he or she would look for a right toolkit to use, but the child once find a proper tool he or she would form his or her owe language. The different child found different tool could not form a same language because the circumstances of linguistic are different.

3. The application of the theory of Universal Grammar

To Chomsky, the universal grammar exists in human being’s instinct. But the question is that how we apply ourselves to the language learning. So he introduced the term “Language Acquisition Device”. He wrote that“Universal Grammar” comes to be used to denote the “initial state” of the language learner; it thus is conceived of as the aspect of the human mind that causes languages to have the features in common that they do. More precisely, Chomsky often uses this term to refer to the child's initial prespecification of the form of possible human grammars. He uses the term “Language Acquisition Device” (LAD) to refer to the child's strategy for constructing or “inventing” a grammar based on primary linguistic data, using Universal Grammar as the starting point. (FL pp.70)

It’s Chomsky’s theory that there exists a sequence of the language acquisition of

human being. At first, the learner (a child) gets the environmental stimulus from the outsides world and then he or she uses the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) to form his or her actual grammar of language.

Chomsky's theory turned out not to reveal meaning after all, at least in the sense that had been anticipated. The consequence was that many researchers felt as though they had been seriously misled by linguistics, and they lost all trust in the field. Many psychologists who had been intrigued with generative grammar and its nativist underpinnings came to reject both. Many philosophers interested in formal theories of meaning turned from Generative Semantics to formal logic (e.g. Montague Grammar, Partee 1975; 1976), with its explicitly apsychological underpinnings. Nor was anyone outside linguistics impressed (if they were even paying attention) when some years later, Chomsky (1981) proposed a new level of syntax, Logical Form, that again was supposed to determine meaning. They had all been there before. In short, this painful episode was an important factor in the alienation of linguistics from the rest of cognitive science. (FL pp.74)

There is no doubt that Chomsky’s theory is a typical apriorism like Kant. Because that he presupposed an existence of innate device of language acquisition in human’s brain or cognitive ability. And this cognitive ability about language learning, to Chomsky, was the LAD, that is to say, it’s the Universal Grammar.

The UG just like love or life instinct to exist of human being and they have a common ground which is that these human phenomena are not learning by acquired knowledge while they are innate and every human being possesses. We can imagine that there is a community in which that there are no fathers or mothers to tell the children how to love the opposite sex. And there are not any stories about love, books and movies are also cleaned out. What will come about in this community? Is there not any boy going to fall in love with a girl? The answer is absolutely wrong and there are still some romantic stories existing in this community. Because it is the human nature to love the opposite sex and this innate phenomena is related to the inherent character of human beings to reproduce and continue them. Therefore, why there is not an innate cognitive ability to language learning? Why human beings haven’t a Universal grammar to instinctively introduce our learning activity about language? The answer to this question is maybe it’s existing just like Chomsky’s hypothesis. In terms of the human inherent character, maybe the primitive use language merely in order to protect themselves from the harm of the natural circumstance. They communicate each other for fighting against the wild animals and save their lives so that the ability of using language gradually became one part of human’s gene and we just inherited this original features from our ancestors. So the theory of Universal Grammar is linked to the gene of human beings and has somewhat innate characteristics. Another example for the innate characteristics of the UG is the linguistic phenomenon about the “Creole” system. The appearance of Creole is a firm confirmation for the theory of the UG and this abnormal situation is not coming without a reason.

Derek Bickerton (1981) documents in detail that children of a pidgin speaking community do not grow up speaking the pidgin, but rather use the pidgin as raw material for a grammatically much richer system called a “C reole.” In particular, he

traces the transition from the Hawaiian pidgin of imported workers to the Hawaiian Creole of their children; speakers of both of these were still alive at the time of his fieldwork in the 1960s. Creoles from all over the world are often found to have grammatical devices not traceable to any of the parent languages of the pidgin.47 Thus, Bickerton's argument goes, Creole grammar must have come from the children's expectations of “what a language has to look like”—i.e. Universal Grammar—and they build these expectations into their linguistic output. The children's parents, on the other hand, do not learn the Creole; they continue to speak the pidgin, because they are past the critical period. (FL pp.100)

From this example, we can learn that these children who didn’t get the normal education that could tell them how to use language (English or pidgin) properly. But these children who communicated each other devised a language, their own language that was what we now call Creole. How they did it? How magical they are! But if we learnt the theory of UG, we would not so surprise to Creole. We knew that these children have the innate ability to “create” a language that is different from any other present languages.

4. The opposite theories and the refutations

For the first time Chomsky advocate this hypothesis, he was criticized other linguists. The first challenging question was that “Chomsky claims that grammar is innate”, and the nature of this question is Chomsky’s hypothesis is a idealist apriorism and all the theories were wholly subjective doctrines and assumptions. This criticism is point out that Chomsky was isolated the theory form the actual stuff.

The refutation to this challenge is that the UG is not the reason for the generation and development of a language but requirement and foundation. “Children have to acquire the grammar of whatever language is present in their environment. Universal Grammar is not the grammar of any single language: it is the prespecification in the brain that permits the learning of language to take place. So the grammar-acquiring capacity is what Chomsky claims is innate. If the child is not exposed to language, language will not develop.”(FL pp.71)

Another challenging opinion was that“Chomsky claims that there is a universal, innate Deep Structure.”That is to say that a innate Deep structure is the most important part and it determine the acquisitions about language.

The refutation to this challenge is that the Universal Grammar does specify that there is Deep Structure; even it does not specify the exact content of Deep Structure in any particular language. This is part of the overall form of grammar, one that conditions the sorts of (f-) expectations children will have in trying to make sense of the incomprehensible noises the people around the mare making.(FL pp.72)