LINGUIST List 5.222

Thu 24 Feb 1994

Disc: Universal grammar

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  1. , Re: 5.200 Universal Grammar
  2. Simon Kirby, Re: 5.200 Universal Grammar

Message 1: Re: 5.200 Universal Grammar

Date: Wed, 23 Feb 1994 10:47:16 Re: 5.200 Universal Grammar
From: <>
Subject: Re: 5.200 Universal Grammar

The term UG is certainly associated not merely with innatism but
more particularly with Chomskian innatism. The author of the
sentence in question is therefore either intentionally parodying
Chomsky's style of argumentation by terminology, or, more likely and
more sadly, is simply unaware of his or her own ideology. In either
case, "clownish" is the proper synonym for "serious" in this context.
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Message 2: Re: 5.200 Universal Grammar

Date: Wed, 23 Feb 94 17:13:58 GMRe: 5.200 Universal Grammar
From: Simon Kirby <>
Subject: Re: 5.200 Universal Grammar

In linguist 5.200, Joseph Stemberger writes...

> I was wondering how this interacts with the term "Universal Grammar". It's
> my impression that innatists tend to use the term "UG", while others just
> talk about "universals". So, when I hear "UG", part of the meaning that I
> get is "universals are innate".

> So I'm wondering whether the term "UG" presupposes the notion of
> innateness, or whether it's neutral on that issue.

I think this is an important, and interesting, question. Certainly,
within the currently dominant paradigm (Chomskian generative grammar),
the use of the term Universal Grammar presupposes a particular approach
to the explanation of language universals: the explanation from
innateness. Researchers working within the functional-typological
approach, however, often reject the innateness argument, but still
refer to Universal Grammar. A small number (at least I think its a
small number!) of linguists are seeking a more unified approach to the
explanation of language universals. These researchers also refer to
Universal Grammar.

The question is: are these UGs the same thing?

I think the main difference is that the innatist argument suggests
that there is an innate mechanism for acquisition which more or less
_is_ UG. This UG is apparent from single language studies, language
pathology research, research on acquisition, and -- to a limited
extent -- from cross-linguistic studies. So, _given_ UG, we should
expect to see similarities between languages, ie. 'universals' in the
traditional sense.

The functional-typological approach takes Universal Grammar to be the
set of universals that can be discovered from cross-linguistic
comparison. Typically, this UG will contain a huge set of logical
generalisations about the range of possible 'surface' structures
across languages. The explanation of these universals often appeals to
a wide variety of (functional) principles, some of which may involve
innate mechanisms (eg. the parser).

It seems that the former usually use the initials UG, whereas the
latter use the term 'universal grammar'. Some recent papers by Hawkins
and a paper by Hurford discuss in detail the interaction of the two
types of explanation. However, I don't think it is clear how much these
two senses of UG are compatible.

Simon Kirby - University of Edinburgh
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