LINGUIST List 3.427

Fri 22 May 1992

Disc: Innateness

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  1. Carl Alphonce, 3.416 Rules, Adjuncts
  2. Joe Stemberger, innateness

Message 1: 3.416 Rules, Adjuncts

Date: 20 May 92 17:22 +0100
From: Carl Alphonce <>
Subject: 3.416 Rules, Adjuncts

Joe Stemberger <> writes

> .
> .
> .
> One last statement implicit in much work in linguistics: "I have no theory
> of genetics, ontogeny, or evolutionary biology, but I'm sure that if I did,
> modern linguistic assumptions about innateness would fit in real well."
> Maybe we should ask a bit more of ourselves that we often do.

I agree, but would hasten to add, lest someone is left with the impression
that theories of "genetics, ontogeny, or evolutionary biology" are somehow
more correct than theories about the innateness of language, that researchers
in those (and other) fields must also ask a bit more of themselves than
they often do.

More than likely all these theories are wrong in one way or another, and
need to be revised, yet they are (more or less) consistent with the data
available to us now - whatever led to the proposal that language is innate
must be accounted for by these other theories also.

Carl Alphonce Department of Computer Science
( University of British Columbia
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Message 2: innateness

Date: Wed, 20 May 92 14:38 CST
From: Joe Stemberger <>
Subject: innateness

The topic of the innateness of language has been coming up again lately in
LINGUIST, with regard to rules and such.

Debates on innateness are usually of the form:
 A: "There's no such thing."
 B: "Of course there is!"

I'd like to hear a different aspect of innateness addressed.

I've never understood why it makes any difference at all to linguistic
theory whether highly language-specific information is innate or not.

Yes, it makes a lot of difference for e.g. language acquisition, but that's
beyond the scope of what most linguists do. It's not considered essential
to study the acquisition of Warlpiri before you study the adult grammar,
most linguists study only adult grammar, and the main principles of grammar
have come from studies of adult grammar. (Have ANY of the main principles
come from the study of acquisition? None in phonology, for sure.)

Innateness is usually used as a explanation for universals, or for
constraints on variation (parameters). But it has always seemed to me that
what is important is that something is universal or that variation is
limited to a few options. What possible difference TO LINGUISTIC THEORY
could it make whether the observed patterns are due to language-specific
innateness, or due to some more general feature of cognitive processing, or
(for that matter) due to guidance from guardian angels or aliens from
another dimension. The observed
patterns are real under any explanation of where they come from, and
languages seem to abide by them. We can still rule out some potential
explanations because they might violate a universal, and still provide
explanations where two phenomena are linked because they are due to the
same parameter.

So, why all this stuff about innateness? I've never understood why we care.

Oh, yes, I DO understand why it's been posited. To paraphrase it in a
completely uncharitable way (always useful for emphasizing that we are
being kind to ourselves in the way we phrase it to ourselves), Chomsky
reasoned in the following way:

 "Hmm. There are fundamental aspects of this theory that are based on
 some pretty weird data. The crucial sentences are always the sort of
 thing that no native speaker of a language would utter in natural
 speech, so no child would ever hear them; so no child could ever
 LEARN these aspects of grammar from input. So, the theory is
 unlearnable. Either (a) the theory is completely wrong (and the
 methodology that led me to it is worthless), or (b) it's
 not learned, but innate. OK, innateness is the only plausible

There are more charitable ways to phrase it, but that's the essence of it,
and that's why so many non-linguists have trouble with it. (And linguists,
too --- my graduate
education at UCSD included expressions of extreme skepticism about
innateness.) This seems to be one way to justify the idea that linguistic
theory has any relevance to anything at all, GIVEN a judgment that it can't
be learned. Personally, I think that people have been too hasty on that
point; learnability work has not been grounded in human learning, but has
attacked just the "logical problem" of learning, and some pretty weird
assumptions are made. But, really, all that stuff is really beyond the
scope of linguistic theory, and relates to how we might be viewed by
psychologists, etc.

Does innateness buy us anything FOR LINGUISTIC THEORY ITSELF?

NOTE: I've tried to be as flippant as possible here, in order to be
provocative. Please don't express displeasure with the tone of the

---joe stemberger
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