Universal Grammar (UG)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Universal Grammar
Universal grammar is regarded by some linguists as part of the genetic endowment of the human species. (Science Picture Co/Getty Images)

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. Also known as Universal Grammar Theory.

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 Noam Chomsky and other linguists.

"Universal grammar is not to be confused with universal language," notes 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).

"In the study of languages," concludes Margaret Thomas, "discussion of universals has persisted up to the present in a Babel of terms and concepts" (in Chomskyan (R)evolutions, 2010).

See the observations below. Also see::


  • "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 University Press, 2003)

  • Chomsky on Universal Grammar
    - "Let us define 'universal grammar' (UG) as the system of principles, conditions, and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages not merely by accident but by necessity."
    (Noam Chomsky, Reflections on Language. Pantheon, 1975)

    - "'[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. It by no means follows from such an account that there must be specific elements or rules . . . or . . . 'features' common to all languages, unless we take these features in a suitably abstract manner."
    (Noam Chomsky, Rules and Representations. Columbia University Press, 1980) 

  • Universal Grammar and Language Acquisition
    "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)

  • Universal Attributes
    "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)
  • Challenges and Criticisms
    - "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)

    - "[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."
    (Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press, 2009) 

    - "[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 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."
    (Jeff Mielke, The Emergence of Distinctive Features. Oxford University Press, 2008)

    Alternate Spellings: Universal Grammar (capitalized)