Universal Grammar (UG)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Universal Grammar
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Universal grammar is the theoretical or hypothetical system of categories, operations, and principles shared by all human languages and considered to be innate. Since the 1980s, the term has often been capitalized. The term is also known as Universal Grammar Theory.

Linguist Noam Chomsky explained, "'[U]niversal grammar' is taken to be the set of properties, conditions, or whatever that constitute the 'initial state' of the language learner, hence the basis on which knowledge of a language develops." ("Rules and Representations." Columbia University Press, 1980)

The concept is connected to the ability of children to be able to learn their native language. "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," wrote Michael Tomasello. ("Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition." Harvard University Press, 2003)

And Stephen Pinker elaborates thusly:

"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)." ("The Stuff of Thought." Viking, 2007)

"Universal grammar is not to be confused with universal language," noted Elena Lombardi, "or with the deep structure of language, or even with grammar itself" ("The Syntax of Desire," 2007). As Chomsky has observed, "[U]niversal grammar is not a grammar, but rather a theory of grammars, a kind of metatheory or schematism for grammar" ("Language and Responsibility," 1979).

History and Background

The concept of a universal grammar (UG) 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 Chomsky and other linguists.

Components that are considered to be universal include the notion that words can be classified into different groups, such as being nouns or verbs and that sentences follow a particular structure. Sentence structures may be different between languages, but each language has some kind of framework so that speakers can understand each other vs. speaking gibberish. Grammar rules, borrowed words, or idioms of a particular language by definition are not universal grammar.

Challenges and Criticisms

Of course, any theory in an academic setting will have challenges, comments, and criticisms by others in the field; such as it is with peer review and the academic world, where people build on the body of knowledge through writing academic papers and publishing their opinions.

Swarthmore College linguist K. David Harrison noted in The Economist,  "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." ("Seven Questions for K. David Harrison." Nov. 23, 2010)

And Jeff Mielke finds some aspects of universal grammar theory to be illogical: "[T]he phonetic motivation for Universal Grammar is extremely weak. Perhaps the most compelling case that can be made is that phonetics, like semantics, is part of the grammar and that there is an implicit assumption that if the syntax is rooted in Universal Grammar, the rest should be too. Most of the evidence for UG is not related to phonology, and phonology has more of a guilt-by-association status with respect to innateness." ("The Emergence of Distinctive Features." Oxford University Press, 2008)

Iain McGilchrist disagrees with Pinkner and took the side of children learning a language just through imitation, which is a behaviorist approach, as opposed to the Chomsky theory of the poverty of the stimulus

"[I]t is uncontroversial that the existence of a universal grammar such as Chomsky conceived it is highly debatable. It remains remarkably speculative 50 years after he posited it, and is disputed by many important names in the field of linguistics. And some of the facts are hard to square with it. Languages across the world, it turns out, use a very wide variety of syntax to structure sentences. But more importantly, the theory of universal grammar is not convincingly compatible with the process revealed by developmental psychology, whereby children actually acquire language in the real world. Children certainly evince a remarkable ability to grasp spontaneously the conceptual and psycholinguistic shapes of speech, but they do so in a far more holistic, than analytic, way. They are astonishingly good imitators—note, not copying machines, but imitators." ("The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World." Yale University Press, 2009) 

So in the field of linguistics, there is always more to learn. Other related topics include mental grammar and generative grammar.