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Bryce  Bochenek  

25  April  2014  
SLS  302  
 
Exploring  the  Concept  of  Universal  Grammar  
 

Over  the  past  century,  much  has  been  revealed  about  a  lot  of  things  that  we  

see  every  day  in  the  world  around  us.  Around  109  years  ago  Albert  Einstein  
developed  the  famous  equation  e  =  mc2    to  better  describe  gravity  as  it  functioned  in  
our  solar  system.  Just  about  45  years  ago  the  first  humans  set  foot  on  the  moon,  the  
familiar  occupant  of  the  night  sky  which  every  human  for  tens  of  thousands  of  years  
before  us  has  looked  upon,  but  never  been  able  to  even  conceive  visiting.  These  
breakthroughs  in  scientific  understanding  and  achievement  are  perhaps  more  
valuable  to  mankind  than  the  concept  of  Universal  Grammar,  yet  they  all  share  a  
commonality  within  science  that  is  rather  pleasing  to  ponder:  all  of  these  majestic  
and  wonderfully  designed  systems  that  we  are  discovering,  occurred  by  themselves.  
We  as  humans  are  only  beginning  to  understand  our  ignorance  relative  to  the  vast  
complexity  of  the  universe,  and  this  ignorance  includes  even  those  things  yielded  by  
the  universe  that  we  think  we  do  understand.  In  the  study  of  languages,  the  past  
century  has  seen  a  litany  of  different  pedagogical  approaches  for  second  language  
instruction,  and  many  more  strategies  devised  in  an  attempt  to  make  easier  the  SLA  
process.  What  it  seems  to  have  failed  to  do  so  far,  is  understand  completely  the  
faculty  of  language  in  the  first  place.  Universal  Grammar,  or  at  least  that  which  the  
current  theory  represents,  is  the  basis  of  language  in  all  humans.  Whether  it  

constrains  languages  to  possess  specific  features  (such  as  nouns,  verbs,  or  the  
recursive  function,  as  Chomsky  has  posited)  or  exists  as  a  much  more  general  means  
for  complexly  coded  auxiliary  communication  between  two  members  of  our  species,  
remains  to  be  seen.  What  we  do  know  is  that  the  best  learners  of  language  are,  far  
and  away,  children.  I  believe  that  the  key  to  understanding  Universal  Grammar  lies  
in  revealing  the  procedural  differences  between  the  average  adult’s  ability  to  learn  a  
second  language  and  the  ability  of  the  otherwise  cognitively  inferior  child.  
 

Universal  Grammar  represents  what  renowned  linguists  such  as  Steven  

Pinker  and  Noam  Chomsky  have  posited  to  be  a  biological  factor  that  leads  to  the  
inevitable  development  of  language  in  all  humans.  It  further  stipulates  that  humans  
raised  under  natural  conditions,  not  those  of  extreme  sensory  deprivation  (i.e.  
Genie),  will  develop  natural  language  with  certain  properties  that  all  languages  
share.  Those  properties  include  simply  the  division  of  objects,  actions,  and  
descriptors,  and  more  complexly  such  linguistic  functions  as  recursion.    
The  critical  formal  contribution  of  early  generative  grammar  was  to  show  
that  the  regularity  and  unaboundedness  of  natural  language  syntax  were  
expressible  in  precise  grammatical  models  endowed  with  recursive  
procedures.  Knowing  a  language  amounts  to  tacitly  possessing  a  recursive  
generative  procedure.  (Chomsky,  2002,  p.  3)    
 
This  recursive  generative  procedure  endows  speakers  with  the  ability  to  
produce  an  infinite  number  of  grammatically  correct  sentences,  using  the  discreetly  
combinatorial,  yet  still  finite,  system  of  words  and  linguistic  structures.  The  ability  

to  do  this  exists  in  all  of  the  world’s  natural  languages,  as  it  merely  involves  the  
placement  of  one  sentence  inside  of  another  sentence.  This  capability  is  matched  in  
its  complexity  by  the  other  half  of  language  use,  the  receiving  end  of  communication,  
which  is  listening.  In  his  1994  book  The  Language  Instinct,  Steven  Pinker  discusses  
the  biological  miracle  that  makes  up  this  half  of  language.  No  system  devised  to  date  
can  match  the  incredibly  precise  and  lightning  quick  decoding  ability  that  comes  
with  human  speech.  In  comparison  with  good  Morse  code  operators,  who  can  
analyze  about  3  sound  units  per  second,  we  are  naturally  far  superior.    
Real  speech,  somehow,  is  perceived  an  order  of  magnitude  faster:  ten  to  
fifteen  phonemes  per  second  for  casual  speech,  twenty  to  thirty  per  second  
for  the  man  in  the  late-­‐night  Veg-­‐O-­‐Matic  ads,  and  as  many  as  forty  to  fifty  
per  second  for  artificially  sped-­‐up  speech.  (Pinker,  1994,  p.  157)  
 
 

Armed  with  the  capability  to  produce  an  infinite  number  of  sentences  using  a  

vastly  complex  combinatorial  procedure,  and  then  decode  the  rapidly  extolled  
speech  of  our  communicative  partner,  humans  have  achieved  some  incredible  
cognitive  feats.  Although,  it  is  not  merely  that  we  can  hear  quickly  when  it  comes  to  
language  that  makes  this  point  so  interesting.  Recognizing  that  language  is  
processed  at  a  rate  faster  than  any  other  sound  humans  hear  is  evidence  for  
biological  predispositions  to  use  language  as  our  means  of  communication.  Without  
speech,  “the  fastest  way  of  getting  information  into  the  head  through  the  ear,”  we  
would  not  have  the  ability  to  so  effectively  cooperate  with  fellow  members  of  our  
species.  (Pinker,  1994,  p.  157)  For  this  reason  it  is  has  been  hypothesized,  as  in  the  

Sapir-­‐Whorf  Hypothesis,  that  language  begat  cognition  as  we  know  it  and  thus  
governs  our  perception  of  the  world.  We  have  since  come  to  understand  the  brain  
differently,  and  thus  developed  a  number  of  different  ideas  about  how  we  use  
language  to  operate  in  the  world.  As  it  stands,  it  is  believed  that  like  other  
indispensible  evolutionarily  bestowed  attributes,  we  developed  language  as  a  
complement  to  our  existing  cognitive  abilities,  resulting  in  the  most  productive  
social  tool  to  date.  The  debate  lies  in  whether  or  not  language  has  since  become  an  
innate  biological  feature  of  our  species.  Daniel  Everett  says  “no”.  
 

Along  with  languages,  culture  has  been  present  in  every  society  of  modern  

humans,  for  it  is  inescapable  by  definition.  Culture,  as  defined  by  the  Merriam-­‐
Webster  dictionary,  is  “the  beliefs,  customs,  arts,  et  cetera,  of  a  particular  society,  
group,  place,  or  time.”  This  collective,  comprised  of  all  the  facets  of  life  that  a  
particular  society  does  in  its  particular  way,  is  tapped  into  in  a  unique  way  by  
language,  in  that  language  is  inherently  intertwined  with  the  culture  it  was  used  to  
create.  Thus,  we  have  culturally  distinct  features  that  appear  within  the  same  
language.  These  include  the  number  of  different  ways  to  refer  to  the  restroom  in  any  
one  of  the  English-­‐speaking  countries  in  the  world.  However,  within  the  isolated  
Pirahã  population  that  resides  in  the  Amazon  of  Brazil,  Daniel  Everett  has  gathered  
evidence  that  refutes  the  position  of  Chomsky  and  like-­‐minded  associates.  His  
research  elicits  the  notion  that  there  exist  more  than  just  these  reconcilable  (and  
sometimes  not)  differences  between  dialects  of  a  language  that  are  brought  about  
by  culture.  Instead,  the  entirety  of  the  world’s  languages  has  developed  merely  as  a  
tool  of  communication,  which  arose  from  our  non-­‐language-­‐specific  physical  and  

cognitive  abilities.  In  developing  this  tool,  culture  “plays  a  major  role  in  structuring  
the  way  that  we  talk  and  the  things  that  we  talk  about.”  (Everett,  2012)  In  studying  
the  Pirahã,  Everett  has  noted  a  number  of  interesting  characteristics  of  their  
language,  and  incidentally  their  culture,  due  to  the  fact  that  they  are  inherently  
inseparable.  The  Pirahã  language,  according  to  claims  by  Everett  (2005),  lacks  
entirely  the  recursive  function  that  Chomsky  (2002)  stated  to  be  a  feature  of  
Universal  Grammar,  and  thus  present  in  all  natural  languages.  This  lack,  as  posited  
by  Everett,  is  due  to  the  Pirahã  culture’s  focus  on  solely  the  present  moment  shared  
between  interlocutors.  “I  argue  that  these  apparently  disjointed  facts  about  the  
Pirahã  language  -­‐  gaps  that  are  very  surprising  from  just  about  any  grammarian's  
perspective  -­‐  ultimately  derive  from  a  single  cultural  constraint  in  Pirahã,  namely,  
the  restriction  of  communication  to  the  immediate  experience  of  the  interlocutors.”  
(Everett,  2005)  Conceptually,  this  idea  makes  sense:  the  existence  of  an  isolated  
group  of  people  that  only  speak  in  the  manner  necessary  for  communicating  the  
minimalistic  needs  of  their  culture.  But  Everett  goes  further:  “Less  explicitly,  the  
paper  raises  the  possibility,  subject  to  further  research,  that  culture  constrains  
cognition  as  well.”  (2005)  By  putting  prime  importance  on  the  impact  of  the  social  
schema,  culture,  Everett  refutes  that  there  exists  at  all  any  form  of  Universal  
Grammar  that  would  yield  consistent  features  across  the  world’s  natural  languages.  
The  existence  of  the  entirely  unique  Pirahã  language,  bereft  of  the  aforementioned  
critical  features  of  Universal  Grammar,  is  Everett’s  disproof  of  Chomsky’s  theory.  
Criticisms  of  Everett’s  research  by  Nevins,  Pesetsky,  &  Rodriguez  (2009)  raise  the  
notion  that  he  improperly  assumed  a  lack  of  recursion  based  solely  on  its  rare  

incidence  in  Pirahã,  and  that  the  absence  of  a  recursive  feature  isn’t  essential  to  the  
theory  of  Universal  Grammar  in  the  first  place.  Additionally  they  note  that  a  
connection  between  culture  and  grammar  is  “unnecessary  and  illusory”.  Everett’s  
response  was  that  although  he  may  be  erred  in  his  claim,  there  has  been  no  evidence  
to  the  contrary.  (Everett  2009)  Here,  we  encounter  the  dilemma  driving  the  debate  
on  Universal  Grammar.  By  determining  which  of  the  factors  at  play  has  a  more  
intense  effect  on  cognition,  we  would,  in  theory,  be  able  to  more  wholly  understand  
where  language  originates:  in  the  people,  or  in  the  person?  
It  would  seem  clear  that  language  could  only  have  originated  from  the  
coordination  of  multiple  people  agreeing  on  a  coded  system  (whether  intentionally  
or  not)  and  using  it  regularly  such  that  others  would  be  able  to  learn  the  meanings  
of  individual  pieces  of  the  code,  and  then  use  them  for  themselves.  By  viewing  
language  in  this  way,  it  is  easy  to  assign  culture  the  credit  for  the  origination  of  
language,  because  the  material  and  immaterial  products  of  a  group  of  people  is  by  
definition,  culture.  However,  why  did  it  originate  in  this  way?  Conceivably  it  is  quite  
difficult  to  posit  another  means  of  communication,  now  that  language  has  evolved  to  
be  so  vastly  complex  and  effective,  but  does  that  mean  that  there  isn’t  another  way?  
The  way  I  see  it,  there  is  not.  The  human  brain  has  evolved  over  millions  of  years  of  
natural  selection,  to  optimize  the  effectiveness  of  the  processes  that  it  needs  to  run  
out  of  necessity.  This  evolution  has  included  the  incredible  miracle  of  vision,  and  the  
ingenious  design  of  the  human  hands,  which  are  capable  of  doing  a  near  infinite  
number  of  complex  physical  tasks.  These  modern  pinnacles  of  evolution  were  at  one  
point  not  innate  biological  features  of  our  ancestors.  Only  once  the  existing  

mutations  that  resulted  in  evolutionary  tools  (such  as  fins)  were  used  for  a  novel  
new  task  (such  as  dragging  oneself  on  land),  which  was  integral  to  the  improved  
survival/reproductive  success  of  an  individual,  did  they  become  a  part  of  the  
population’s  biological  makeup,  through  increased  incidence  of  the  specific  genetic  
mutation’s  reproduction.  This  is  a  drawn  out  way  of  insinuating  that  as  soon  as  the  
language  tool  was  invented  using  our  existing  characteristics,  it  began  weaving  its  
way  into  the  fabric  of  cognition,  eventually  becoming  an  innate  human  instinct.  I  
appreciate  the  wisdom  of  Steven  Pinker  on  this  matter,  who  is  not  only  a  gifted  
linguist,  but  also  an  evolutionary  psychologist,  who  has  studied  in  depth  and  written  
much  about  the  topic  of  the  instinctual  human  propensity  for  language.  In  reference  
to  the  vast  evolutionary  tree  that  depicts  who  our  ancestors  are,  Pinker  notes  with  
his  simplistic  tact:  
 
So  if  the  first  trace  of  a  proto-­‐language  ability  appeared  in  the  ancestor  at  the  
arrow,  there  could  have  been  on  the  order  of  350,000  generations  between  
then  and  now  for  the  ability  to  have  been  elaborated  and  fine-­‐tuned  to  the  
Universal  Grammar  we  see  today.  For  all  we  know,  language  could  have  had  a  
gradual  fade-­‐in,  even  if  no  extant  species,  not  even  our  closest  living  relatives  
the  chimpanzees,  have  it.  There  were  plenty  of  organisms  with  intermediate  
language  abilities,  but  they  are  all  dead.  (Pinker,  1994,  354)  
 
In  this  understanding  of  Universal  Grammar,  it  is  not  such  that  a  mutation  
suddenly  begat  human  language,  it  is  instead  that  once  language  was  invented  

(however  long  that  took)  it  became  integral  to  our  communicative  nature.  The  
following  adaptations  that  resulted  in  UG  were  the  hand  of  natural  selection,  
eventually  evolving  so  that  fetal  humans  possess  a  biological  tool  for  devising  the  
system  they  were  inevitably  going  to  encounter  upon  being  born.    The  most  pointed  
example  of  this,  in  my  opinion,  is  the  brilliance  exhibited  by  children  when  it  comes  
to  acquiring  their  native  language.  The  acumen  on  display  when  toddlers  acquire  
language  is  nothing  short  of  amazing,  and  their  abilities  continue  to  confound  us.  
Explanations  of  this  include  the  Critical  Period  Hypothesis,  which  states  “that  
animals,  including  humans,  are  genetically  programmed  to  acquire  certain  kinds  of  
knowledge  and  skill  at  specific  times  in  life.”  (Lightbown  &  Spada,  2013,  p.  22)  
Under  this  hypothesis,  and  subsequently  under  the  shared  understanding  of  the  
concept  of  Universal  Grammar,  human  infants  are  born  with  a  biological  feature  in  
the  brain  that  assists  in  the  cognitively  laborious  task  of  decoding  and  acquiring  a  
natural  language.  Furthermore,  human  adults  lose  this  acumen  by  the  time  they  
have  begun  to  go  through  puberty,  even  if  they  have  already  learned  one  or  two  
languages.  In  the  unfortunate  case  that  a  language  has  not  been  acquired  by  this  
time,  the  individual  in  question  will  remain  unable  to  improve  his/her  language  
ability.  This  must  certainly  be  due  to  the  synaptic,  or  neuronal,  pruning  that  
coincides  with  the  same  age  markers.  In  biopsychology  it  is  well  known  that  we  
possess  the  greatest  number  of  neurons  when  we  are  born,  and  throughout  our  lives  
we  gradually  lose  them.  Using  this  understanding,  we  can  see  how  our  brain’s  
capacity  to  learn  might  decrease  over  time,  and  thus  why  it  becomes  gradually  
harder  to  learn  a  new  language,  as  we  grow  older.  However,  there  are  a  large  

number  of  things  that  we  do  not  learn  in  those  first  few  years,  not  a  one  of  them  as  
vastly  complex  as  the  linguistic  system  that  we  invariably  do  acquire.  Thus  it  stands  
to  reason  that  within  the  large  number  of  neurons  we  are  born  with  a  specifically  
unidentified,  but  certainly  responsible  Universal  Grammar,  which  guides  the  way  to  
learning  the  invaluable  communicative  tool  that  is  language  in  a  reasonable  time  
frame  such  that  it  will  be  useful  to  the  individual  human.  
The  resulting  conclusion  that  I  have  drawn  from  examining  the  various  
positions  related  to  the  existence  of  Universal  Grammar,  is  that  despite  the  
exactness  of  the  terms  on  which  it  functions,  UG  is  a  valid  theory  for  explaining  the  
linguistic  phenomena  unique  to  human  beings.  Chomsky’s  proposition  of  the  
Universal  Grammar  initially  may  have  been  slightly  too  descriptive,  however  the  
enlightening  research  conducted  by  Everett  further  reveals  the  constraints  of  the  
biological  language  factor.  By  referencing  on  the  larger  scale  how  human  kind  has  
developed,  and  accounting  for  the  intermediate  forms  of  language  that  might  be  
missing  in  the  evolutionary  tree  due  to  their  extinction,  Pinker  provides  a  plausible  
view  of  how  Universal  Grammar  became  a  part  of  our  biological  make  up.  As  for  
what  we  find  in  our  continued  study  of  language  learning,  into  those  years  which  we  
are  not  supported  by  the  universal  grammar,  it  is  my  hope  that  by  further  
understanding  what  features  of  language  are  constrained  by  a  biological  factor  for  
grammar,  we  will  be  able  to  devise  strategies  for  more  effectively  acquiring  second  
languages  once  we  have  exited  the  linguistic  critical  period  for  good.    
 
 
 
 

Works  Cited  
 
Chomsky,  N.  (2002)  On  Nature  and  Language.  United  Kingdom:  Cambridge  
University  Press.  
 
Everett,  D.  (2005)  Cultural  constraints  on  grammar  and  cognition  in  Pirahã:  Another  
look  at  the  design  features  of  human  language.  Current  Anthropology.  46(4).  The  
Wenner-­‐Gren  Foundation  for  Anthropological  Research.  
 
Everett,  D.  (2009)  Pirahã  culture  and  grammar:  A  response  to  some  criticisms.  Illinois  
State  University.  
 
Lightbown,  P.  &  Spada,  N.  (2013)  How  languages  are  learned.  Oxford:  Oxford  
University  Press.  
 
McCrum,  R.  (Interviewer)  &  Everett,  D.  (Interviewee)  Daniel  Everett:  There  is  no  such  
thing  as  universal  grammar.  (Interview  Transcript).  Retrieved  from  The  Guardian  
web  site:  http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/mar/25/daniel-­‐everett-­‐
human-­‐language-­‐piraha  
 
Pinker,  S.  (1994).  The  Language  Instinct:  How  the  Mind  Creates  Language  (New  York:  
William  Morrow).