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A Ubiquitous Universal Grammar

ewippermann's picture

Neurocognitive linguistics offers an approach to linguistics which focuses on identifying the cognitive processes by which the brain acquires and uses language, the operations that underlie the language function, and the physical structures in the brain that account for language. Language acquisition represents the immense difficulties linguists have in explaining and proving assertions from the scarce linguistic data available today. Every cognitively normal child is able to, and if exposed to other speakers definitely will, develop and learn a language natively. This is because language is not a learned skill, but an instinct. It is encoded in DNA, which is why, without ever being taught, we are very good at using language-it's like walking, part of an innate program of development. However, language is not wholly built in, like birdsongs, and nor is it wholly acquired by exposure: a mixture of methods is employed. When studying a language, speakers notice the differences in structure, lexicon, inflection, etc., but Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics, instead noticed the impressive similarities. He asked why all languages seem to be of the same mold, and determined that the brain is "prewired" to only accept certain properties, sounds, and structures.

     Biolinguistics further explains the similarities of language use by asserting that human languages and grammars are entirely rule-governed systems. These rules operate to store a mental lexicon, to provide structures for sound, contrast, and morphological happenings, and to generate a syntax that allows for infinite original utterances. A broad goal of linguistics is to discover and characterize these language rules and to determine which are language specific and which are universal, common to all speakers. That contrast identifies a distinction between spoken and mental language: E-Language, or "external language," consists of the outputs and inputs that speakers experience as utterances; I-Language is the internal grammar, and consists of the rules that underlie all language use. So, when children experience native language acquisition, they do not have to learn every particular rule for the language at hand; instead, they have to pick up the particular versions of the rules specific to that language, such as subject-verb-object position. And often, the "errors" children make are only errors in the particular language they are learning; a common mistake for English-speaking children is the use of double negatives, for example, but in other languages such as Spanish, such usage is entirely grammatical.

     The rules that children start out with, the innate and instinctual patterns and formations, are called the Universal Grammar. Some examples of the fundamental properties of human language follow: word categories (nouns, verbs, etc.), distinction between plural and singular, a way to ask a question and to make things negative, and the presence of obligatory distinctions (masculine/feminine, past/present, definite/indefinite, etc.). These properties appear independently in very different cultures in every recorded time period, which shows that they are not accidental commonalities imposed by a culture, but must be part of the human cognitive structure. Two parts of the human brain, Broca's and Wernicke's, have been identified to be responsible for specific linguistic functions, which supports Chomskyan claims in linguistics.

     Language usage and acquisition is not a product of the problem-solving abilities of the human brain, but of neuronal circuitry. The existence of aphasia (the loss of linguistic capabilities in varying degrees due to injury) and of genetic diseases impairing linguistic proficiency (such as Williams syndrome) proves this.

     Language is an instinct, and the human brain has specific areas responsible for language function. The only reasonable account for these facts is that humans evolved to have linguistic capability and a Universal Grammar, and that linguistic structures are a product of the structure of the brain. With this comprehension, other cognitive universals could also be examined in this way.

     Cognitive evolution reaches far beyond linguistics, and research on the spectrum of phenomena could contribute to a greater understanding of the brain as a whole. Just as every human society utilizes language, music, dance, religion, spirituality, morality, and social code are also entirely universal. Selection pressure led to evolving thumbs and self consciousness, and, as humans are dependent upon their social structures, it follows that traits that lead to beneficial social behavior would also be products of genetic evolution.*

     I'd like to explore the idea of a more widely applicable Universal Grammar: to further the suggestion that all these common traits in our species are not the product of coincidence but of adaptation and evolution. The Universal Grammar that linguistics uses to account for the paradox of language acquisition and the overwhelming similarities between language users could also provide a structure for other universal human traits. All of these phenomena can be studied and examined by measuring neural activity in different regions of the brain, and are existing functions of the brain that contribute to our species' survival. The evolution of language provides an efficient means with which to transfer nongenetic information between individuals, and to therefore build efficient societies, which lead to a new mode of evolutionary change-selection based on the socially advantageous. Language, music, religion, morality, and social codes are universal social occurrences. This is truly just personal speculation now, but perhaps there is a Universal Social Grammar of sorts, in which the innate patterns of sociality are genetically transmitted and appear in every individual as part of the structure of the nervous system.


*My favorite summary of the phenomenon of human cognitive (and therefore societal) similarities is sociobiologist Robin Fox's example of a completely isolated hypothetical society:

 "I do not doubt that they could speak and that, theoretically, given time, they or their offspring would invent and develop a language despite their never having been taught one. Furthermore, this language, although totally different than any known to us, would be analyzable to linguists on the same basis as other languages and translatable into all known languages. But I would push this further. If our new Adam and Eve could survive and breed-still in total isolation of any cultural influences-then eventually they would produce a society which would have laws about property, rules about incest and marriage, customs of taboo, a system of social status, courtship practices including the adornment of females, dancing, schizophrenia, homosexuality, initiation ceremonies for young men, myths and legends, and beliefs about the supernatural and practices relating to it."



Nowak, Martin, Natalia Komarova, and Partha Niyogi. "Evolution of Universal Grammar." Science 05 Jan 2001: 114-5. Web. 21 Feb 2010. <>.


Language and Brain: Neurocognitive Linguistics. 15 October 2009. Rice University, Web. 21 Feb 2010. <>.


Ellefson, Michelle, and Morten Christiansen. "The Evolution of Subjacency without Universal Grammar: Evidence from Artificial Language Learning ." Southern Illinois University, Web. 21 Feb 2010. <>.



Paul Grobstein's picture

universal grammar or similar probem solving processes?

"Language usage and acquisition is not a product of the problem-solving abilities of the human brain, but of neuronal circuitry."
This is certainly a legitimate reading of Chomsky and neurolinguistics, but it is not the only such reading nor one that is commonly held by all neurolinguists.  An alternate reading is that language acquisition is indeed the result of problem-solving by individual brains.  On this reading, the similarities in human languages reflect the outcomes of similar problem solving in similar contexts, and lesions affect language not by damaging the locations of "universal grammar" but rather by damaging relevant problem solving circuity.
On either reading, one might indeed go further and look for "a more widely applicable Universal Grammar," one that accounts for other "common traits in our species," such as "music, religion, morality, and social codes."  The reading you suggest would bias one towards finding such "universals" and regarding them as "not the product of coincidence but of adaptation and evolution," ie as inevitable and universal features of humanity.  The alternate reading would incline one to look more for the exceptions, and to entertain the idea that humanity as we currently see it might well have been otherwise, and might become otherwise in the future.  
Which reading to pursue is an interesting question, not only with regard to neuolinguistics and human universals but with regard to other matters as well.  See On beyond an algorithmic universe.