LINGUIST List 9.1148

Mon Aug 17 1998

Disc: Universal Grammar (Proof)

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Geoffrey Sampson, Re: 9.1131, Universal Grammar (Proof)
  2. Joseph Hilferty, New evidence for UG?

Message 1: Re: 9.1131, Universal Grammar (Proof)

Date: Tue, 11 Aug 1998 10:30:22 +0100
From: Geoffrey Sampson <>
Subject: Re: 9.1131, Universal Grammar (Proof)

I'm sorry to pour cold water, but John Skoyles's "proof" of the
reality of Universal Grammar by analogy with phantom limbs seems quite
unconvincing to me. (I should perhaps declare an interest; as the
author of the book _Educating Eve_ which Skoyles quotes as refuting
Universal Grammar on empirical grounds, I obviously cannot pretend to
be a neutral third party here.) We all know, as an uncontroversial
truism, that things to do with bodily anatomy and its development are
fixed genetically. What is surprising and controversial, in the
writings of nativists like Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky, is the
claim that intellectual development is under similarly tight genetic
control; empiricists like me believe that the body runs on tramlines
but the intellect is an all-terrain vehicle. Thus it doesn't seem
very surprising to hear that a genetic defect might lead to a person
being born without limbs but nevertheless with neural arrangements
relating to perception and control of limbs. This isn't very close to
the areas which empiricists take to be outside genetic control. The
structure of one's language, on the other hand, is squarely at the
centre of those areas; if even this were preordained genetically, then
everything that makes us human, barring trivia, would be genetically
	Someone, like Skoyles, who aims to refute scepticism about
Universal Grammar really needs to use evidence from language, not
evidence from areas where genetic explanations are relatively

Geoffrey Sampson

School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, GB

tel. +44 1273 678525
fax +44 1273 671320
Web site
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Message 2: New evidence for UG?

Date: Thu, 13 Aug 1998 01:24:29 +0200
From: Joseph Hilferty <>
Subject: New evidence for UG?

In a recent posting, Dr. Skoyles cites an interesting fMRI study on
phantom-limb syndrome as evidence in favor of UG (see LINGUIST List
9.1131). I would like to disagree with the conclusion he draws, namely
that we can somehow extrapolate from neural activity concerning
phantom limbs to the existence of UG.

Dr. John Skoyles <> wrote:

> This finding is important to linguistics as it provides something
> that has missing until now: a case of neurobiological pre-adaptation
> for mental processes that might otherwise be attributed exclusively
> to environmental learning. If such a neurobiological preadaption has
> evolved for our body schemata, it is not improbable that a similar
> pre-adaptation could have evolved for syntax. Thus, UG remains, in
> spite, of recent challenges, a probable theory.

The whole problem with the argument is that arms and legs have been
around a LOT longer than speech, and lots of time is just what
genetically implemented adaptations need. So, even if we do have
innate schemata for limbs, it is hardly clear whether this has any
bearing on UG being "a probable theory," because we are talking about
radically different amounts of time.

Joe Hilferty

P.S. Anybody interested in rethinking UG might want to consult the
following references:

Deacon, Terrence W. 1997. _The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of
Language and the Brain_. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Elman, Jeffrey L., Elizabeth A. Bates, Mark H. Johnson, Annette
Karmiloff-Smith, Domenico Parisi & Kim Plunkett. 1996. _Rethinking
Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development_. Cambridge,
MA: The MIT Press (Bradford).

Haukioja, Timo. 1993. Language, Parameters, and Natural Selection.
_SKY 1993: The Linguistic Association of Finland_, 265-269.
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