Field of Science

Universal Grammar is dead. Long live Universal Grammar.

Last year, in a commentary on Evans and Levinson's "The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science" in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (a journal which published one target paper and dozens of commentaries in each issue), Michael Tomasello wrote:
I am told that a number of supporters of universal grammar will be writing commentaries on this article. Though I have not seen them, here is what is certain. You will not be seeing arguments of the following type: I have systematically looked at a well-chosen sample of the world's languages, and I have discerned the following universals ... And you will not even be seeing specific hypotheses about what we might find in universal grammar if we followed such a procedure.
Hmmm. There are no specific proposals about what might be in UG... Clearly Tomasello doesn't read this blog much. Granted, for that he should probably be forgiven. But he also clearly hasn't read Chomsky lately. Here's the abstract of the well-known Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch (2002):
We submit that a distinction should be made between the faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB) and in the narrow sense (FLN). FLB includes a sensory-motor system, a conceptual-intentional system, and the computational mechanisms for recursion, providing the capacity to generate an infinite range of expressions from a finite set of elements. We hypothesize that FLN only includes recursion and is the only uniquely human component of the faculty of language.
Later on, HCF make it clear that FLN is another way of thinking about what elsewhere is called "universal grammar" -- that is, constraints on learning that allow the learning of language.

Tomasello's claim about the other commentaries (that they won't make specific claims about what is in UG) is also quickly falsified, and by the usual suspects. For instance, Steve Pinker and Ray Jackendoff devote much of their commentary to describing grammatical principles that could be -- but aren't -- instantiated in any language.

Tomasello's thinking is perhaps made more clear by a later comment later in his commentary:
For sure, all fo the world's languages have things in common, and [Evans and Levinson] document a number of them. But these commonalities come not from any universal grammar, but rather from universal aspects of human cognition, social interaction, and information processing...
Thus, it seems he agrees that there are constraints on language learning that shape what languages exist. This, for instance, is the usual counter-argument to Pinker and Jackendoff's nonexistent languages: those languages don't exist because they're really stupid languages to have. I doubt Pinker or Jackendoff are particular fazed by those critiques, since they are interested in constraints on language learning, and this proposed Stupidity Constraint is still a constraint. Even Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002) allow for constraints on language that are not specific to language (that's their FLB).

So perhaps Tomasello fundamentally agrees with people who argue for Universal Grammar, this is just a terminology war. They call fundamental cognitive constraints on language learning "Universal Grammar" and he uses the term to refer to something else: for instance, proposals about specific grammatical rules that we are born knowing. Then, his claim is that nobody has any proposals about such rules.

If that is what he is claiming, that is also quickly falsified (if it hasn't already been falsified by HCF's claims about recursion). Mark C. Baker, by the third paragraph of his commentary, is already quoting one of his well-known suggested language universals:
(1) The Verb-Object Constraint (VOC): A nominal that expresses the theme/patient of an event combines with the event-denoting verb before a nominal that expresses the agent/cause does.
And I could keep on picking examples. For those outside of the field, it's important to point out that there wasn't anything surprising in the Baker commentary or the Pinker and Jackendoff commentary. They were simply repeating well-known arguments they (and others) have made many times before. And these are not obscure arguments. Writing an article about Universal Grammar that fails to mention Chomsky, Pinker, Jackendoff or Baker would be like writing an article about major American cities without mentioning New York, Boston, San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Don't get me wrong. Tomasello has produced absurd numbers of high-quality studies and I am a big admirer of his work. But if he is going to make blanket statements about an entire literature, he might want to read one or two of the papers in that literature first.

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Tomasello, M. (2009). Universal grammar is dead Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32 (05) DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X09990744

Evans, N., & Levinson, S. (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32 (05) DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0999094X

Hauser MD, Chomsky N, & Fitch WT (2002). The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science (New York, N.Y.), 298 (5598), 1569-79 PMID: 12446899

Baker, M. (2009). Language universals: Abstract but not mythological Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32 (05) DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X09990604

Pinker, S., & Jackendoff, R. (2009). The reality of a universal language faculty Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32 (05) DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X09990720

9 comments:

Tal said...

In the sense that Universal Grammar is a set of constraints on learning, then yes, sure there's a consensus in the field that such thing exist. This is clearly not what generative linguists mean when they talk about Universal Grammar though. Most of the literature assumes absurdly specific and elaborate formal rules, that actually merit the name "grammar" (as opposed to "constraints on learning", which I would hardly call a "grammar").

Plus, I don't believe Chomsky's sudden change of heart (the 2002 paper) has had a significant impact on the way this term is used in the field. (I agree this is an impressionistic sociological claim, but so too was yours...)

GamesWithWords said...

@Tal - The issue I was getting at here is that Tomasello was claiming that no linguist anywhere -- ever -- has made a specific proposal about what might be in UG. My response was that not only have many linguists made such proposals, you'd be hard pressed to avoid running into them if you actually read the literature. Whether those proposals are absurd is a separate issue. At least some of them, like Baker's UTAH, come very close to correctly characterizing existing languages, so whether or not they are ultimately right, they are certainly not absurd.

I agree that the two Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch papers don't seem to have had a big impact. I think it's an interesting example of convergence in research programs, but my main purpose, though, was to bring up the claim about recursion, which is a very specific proposal about UG (contra Tomasello). In fact, since recursion goes back to the dawn of generative grammar and was a focal point in the argument with Behaviorism, it's hard to imagine anybody could have read anything about UG and never have run across this claim.

Bob Carpenter said...

Do John and the paper have the same roles relative to the writing event in (1) "John wrote a paper", (2) "A paper was written by John", and (3) "It was a paper that John wrote"?

If so, what does "first" mean in the verb-object constraint?

GamesWithWords said...

@Bob: I know Baker's UTAH primarily by reputation. I recently read the book in which he proposed it and found the book too syntactic-y to follow (my specialty is semantics).

But with that caveat, my understanding is that he is assuming deep structure + movement. In deep structure, I expect John is the subject of all three of those sentences (I'm less sure about #3).

I'm not sure what he means by "combining first" -- he's clearly going for some abstract structure of some sort.

Oriol said...

@Bob Certainly, John is always the Agent/Causer of the action and the paper is always the Theme/Patient, in the three cases. The assumption of the existence of a numeration (formerly Deep Structure) and a derivation with cylcic merges and moves gets us to the point where the first state of any given sentence is that in which its thematic grid is fulfilled, in essentially two levels of embeddedment: [AGT/CAU+[Vb+PAT/THE]]. As the derivation goes by, any of these elements may move (specially the Theme) in a variety of ways, be it via a passivization (like in 2) or via clefting (like in 3, clefts are heavily related to information structure and focus). All that said, function (subject, object, etc) is relative to the position of a given element in the tree, not to the moment of its merging. Therefore, the notion of "subject" must not be applied on Numeration/Deep Structure, rather on Spellout/Logical Form.

As perceived here, in Barcelona, the claim that only merge is part of FLN / UG is been a major one. Many people is beginning to question the usage of such concepts as Parameter, in the search of other primitives of language intimately bound to direct recursion.

Great post!

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techczech said...

It seems that we're getting into very subtle references. As a UG critic, I would never have said that noone ever suggested what might be IN Universal Grammar. But I would definitely maintain that no one ever satisfactorily enumerated what a Universal Grammar would look like as a whole rather than point to a grab bag of random constraints. Thomasello did overreach but only a slight rephrasing would have made his statement be right on the money.

But the much more significant charge in my view is that none of the proposed FLN constraints describe anything outside the extremely narrow bounds of formal word-order derived syntax.

The reason some people rail so hard against UG and its paraphernalia is that it is constantly being reinterpreted as describing actual grammar (most frequently by philosophers, teachers and BBC documentarists who only have the arguments third hand). And the architects of the movement bear responsibility for that by not setting the record straight more forcefully.

mark said...

What techczech said. As I wrote: but is it grammar? If we reduce UG to the existence of some cognitive constraints on learning, sure, everyone is going to agree. But then UG (which even according to HCF 2002 is possibly empty) is dangerously close to being a vacuous entity.

GamesWithWords said...

@Mark: Vacuous in what way? And define "cognitive".

There is a very strong claim on which UG is some domain-specific parameters for language. But that carries with it some additional hypotheses. On my preferred theory, most of language is synonymous with the language of thought. In which case, asking whether something is domain-specific stops making sense. That is, the "domain" of language is more or less *all* of thought. So is thinking specific to thinking? Probably, but nobody would ever ask that question.

Notice that this does not make your formulation of UG vacuous at all. It actually continues to perform its most vital role: constraining the hypothesis space so that learning can proceed.