Universal grammar

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The universal grammar (UG) is an assumption underlying some theories of linguistics , according to which all (human) languages follow common grammatical principles and these principles are innate in all human beings . Noam Chomsky is one of the founders and most famous exponents of this version of a universal grammar . The term universal grammar is therefore a fixed term in the school of generative grammar and is not used in other lines of tradition that deal with language universals , such as language typology .

In the context of generative grammar, it was assumed for a long time that universal grammar consisted only of a series of rules that enabled children to use the linguistic input available to them to develop hypotheses about possible underlying grammars and to assign them during language acquisition evaluate (see also Language Acquisition Device ). However, this view was given up in the course of the development of the so-called principles-and-parameter theory ; its basic assumption is essentially that all natural languages ​​are based on the same grammatical system. In language acquisition, the grammatical principles contained in a language no longer have to be learned (because they are always the same and knowledge about them is innate), but only the development of certain linguistic parameters (e.g. head-first versus head- last ). In addition, it has been suggested that linguistic variation be completely restricted to the lexicon - grammatical parameters thus only affect the properties of functional lexical elements, and language acquisition as a whole can be reduced to lexicon acquisition. Chomsky now also speaks of the fact that the core of human language ability only contains recursivity , since this is the only ability (linked to language) that only humans have (language ability in the narrower sense). The language ability in the broader sense then includes z. B. the sensory-motor system, which includes , among other things, the speaking apparatus .

Universal grammar is of fundamental importance in the theory of optimality . All the restrictions postulated there are to be regarded as part of the universal grammar. Linguistic differences result from the weighting of the individual restrictions.

In 2018, the neuropsychologist Angela Friederici presented the first empirical evidence for the existence of an organ responsible for universal grammar. It is a fiber bundle in the brain between the Broca area and the Wernicke area .


Criticism of the concept of universal grammar may come. a. from the behaviorist side. What is disputed is not whether linguistic behavior has both ontogenetic and phylogenetic requirements, but whether there must be an innate mechanism that limits the arrangement of elementary linguistic behavior . All the arguments put forward in favor of innate grammar merely confirmed that the ability to speak is useful (i.e., a survival benefit) for the individual. They did not justify a universal grammar and they did not explain why an organism would be at a disadvantage in the struggle for survival without it. In addition, animals ( starlings ) also seem to have abilities that were previously considered a universal characteristic only of human language ability.

Stephen C. Levinson and Nicholas Evans criticize the fact that in generative linguistics very many different models of universal grammar are used and their defenders picked out of these different models and approaches the parts they needed for their point of view. Thus it is not possible to formulate and test a coherent counter-hypothesis.

Michael Tomasello takes the view that the assumption of a universal grammar is unnecessary, since language acquisition through more general learning processes and the development of social-cognitive skills (such as establishing mutual attention to refer to an object, or the skills, intentions of the other actors ) explain. He also criticizes that there is no consensus on what the universal grammar should contain.

The linguist Daniel Everett has drawn some attention with his claim that the Pirahã language is a counterexample to Chomsky's universal grammar, since there is no recursion in it (and thus no embedded sentences ) . He justifies this mainly with the nature of the culture of the Pirahã, which is exclusively fixated on the present : The Pirahã have no creation myths , tell no stories and mostly do not remember the deceased. However, his statements were heavily criticized and he was accused of incorrectly analyzing the language data. So this is a famous, but also a very controversial counterexample.

Christiansen and Chater (2008) have argued that a biologically, that is, genetically , determined universal grammar is evolutionarily implausible, since language change proceeds much faster than genetic change. Language therefore represents a “moving target” and does not offer a stable development environment for potential language genes . The original language must have been a cultural product with high variability at the beginning , and it can not be explained by evolutionary mechanisms how this should have been genetically fixed. The human brain is not adapted to language (as it is assumed in the Chomsky tradition): The UG principles are arbitrary , ie they are not related to cognitive principles or learning mechanisms, but language is adapted to the brain ; it is shaped by general learning mechanisms and processing preferences that exert adaptive constraints on language. Language is seen as an "organism" that adapts itself better and better to its environment , in this case the human brain, in the course of evolution . With this point of view it is easier to explain why linguistic structures are so complex and still learnable: Language follows general cognitive principles and is shaped in such a way that it is as easy to process as possible. Christiansen and Chater do not rule out that language had an influence on the evolution of hominids (good language skills could have increased reproductive success), but emphasize that the compulsion for language to adapt to the human brain is much greater than the compulsions People to use language. The use of language is only one of many adaptive constraints that affect people, while the only adaptive constraint for language is that it can be learned and processed by the human brain (as easily as possible).

See also


Literature per universal grammar

  • Noam Chomsky: Rules and Representations . Columbia University Press, New York 1980.
  • Noam Chomsky: Lectures on Government and Binding . Foris, Dordrecht 1981.
  • Noam Chomsky: The Minimalist Program . MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1995.

Literature versus universal grammar

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Noam Chomsky: Lectures on Government and Binding. Foris, Dordrecht 1981.
  2. ^ Noam Chomsky: The Minimalist Program . MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1995.
  3. ^ MD Hauser, N. Chomsky, WT Fitch: The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? (PDF file; 706 kB). In: Science. Volume 298, No. 5598, 2002, pp. 1569-1579.
  4. Stefanie Kara: Universal grammar: "I think that he thinks that ..." In: Zeit online . April 25, 2018 ( zeit.de [accessed on May 2, 2018]).
  5. DC Palmer: Chomsky's nativism. A critical review. In: The Analysis of Verbal Behavior. Volume 17, 2000, pp. 39-50.
  6. DC Palmer: Chomsky's nativism reconsidered. In: The Analysis of Verbal Behavior. Volume 17, 2000, pp. 51-56.
  7. ^ GF Marcus: Language: Startling starlings. (PDF file; 288 kB). In: Nature. Volume 440, No. 7088, 2006, pp. 1117-1118.
  8. ^ Levinson SC, Evans N.: Time for a sea-change in linguistics: Response to comments on 'The Myth of Language Universals'. (PDF file; 389 kB). In: Lingua. Volume 120, No. 12, 2010, pp. 2733-2758.
  9. ^ Michael Tomasello: Constructing a Language. A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2003.
  10. M. Tomasello: The item-based nature of children's early syntactic development. ( Memento of July 25, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF file; 217 kB). In: Trends in cognitive sciences. Volume 4, No. 4, 2000, pp. 156-163.
  11. ^ M. Tomasello: Beyond formalities: The case of language acquisition. (PDF; 104 kB). In: The Linguistic Review. Volume 22, No. 2-4, 2005, pp. 183-197.
  12. ^ D. Everett: Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã: another look at the design features of human language. (PDF file; 228 kB). In: Current Anthropology . Volume 46, 2005, pp. 621-634.
  13. A. Nevins, D. Pesetsky, C. Rodrigues: Pirahãs exceptionality: A reassessment. (PDF file; 420kB). In: Language. Volume 85, No. 2, 2009, pp. 355-404.
  14. ^ MH Christiansen, N Chater: Language as shaped by the brain. (PDF file; 928 kB). In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Volume 31, No. 05, 2008, pp. 489-509.