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universal grammar (UG)


universal grammar (UG)

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker (Viking, 2007)


The system of categories, operations, and principles shared by all human languages and considered to be innate.

The concept of universal grammar has been traced to the observation of Roger Bacon, a 13th-century Franciscan friar and philosopher, that all languages are built upon a common grammar. The expression was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s by Noam Chomsky and other linguists.

See also:


  • "In cracking the code of language, . . . children's minds must be constrained to pick out just the right kinds of generalizations from the speech around them. . . . It is this line of reasoning that led Noam Chomsky to propose that language acquisition in children is the key to understanding the nature of language, and that children must be equipped with an innate Universal Grammar: a set of plans for the grammatical machinery that powers all human languages. This idea sounds more controversial than it is (or at least more controversial than it should be) because the logic of induction mandates that children make some assumptions about how language works in order for them to succeed at learning a language at all. The only real controversy is what these assumptions consist of: a blueprint for a specific kind of rule system, a set of abstract principles, or a mechanism for finding simple patterns (which might also be used in learning things other than language)."
    (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. Viking, 2007)

  • "Generative grammarians believe that the human species evolved a genetically universal grammar common to all peoples and that the variability in modern languages is basically on the surface only."
    (Michael Tomasello, Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard Univ. Press, 2003)

  • "There is a broad measure of agreement that the following are universal:
    - some lexical categories (noun and verb);
    - structure-dependency;
    - phrases containing a head of the same type as the phrase;
    - a phrase structure consisting of Specifier, Head, and Complement.
    UG theory accepts that languages may deviate to some degree from the universal pattern. A language user's competence is said to consist of a core grammar of universal principles and parameters and a periphery of features specific to the language in question, which cannot be explained by reference to UG. They might be survivals from an earlier stage of the language, loans from other languages or fixed idioms."
    (John Field, Psycholinguistics: The Key Concepts. Routledge, 2004)

  • "I and many fellow linguists would estimate that we only have a detailed scientific description of something like 10% to 15% of the world's languages, and for 85% we have no real documentation at all. Thus it seems premature to begin constructing grand theories of universal grammar. If we want to understand universals, we must first know the particulars."
    (K. David Harrison, linguist at Swarthmore College, in "Seven Questions for K. David Harrison." The Economist, Nov. 23, 2010)
Also Known As: UG, Universal Grammar Theory, generative-transformation linguistics
Alternate Spellings: Universal Grammar
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