Babel’s Dawn: Is Anything Universal in Language?

The question at hand: do the things that all languages have in common reflect certain universals of human thought and experience, or do they reflect the workings of a universal language faculty? Fifty years ago a third answer dominated: languages are learned from scratch and have no universals. That position, however, is still so out of favor that it is not much proposed in the current quarrel.

The latest dispute arises from a stark denial that languages have any peculiar grammatical universals of their own. It amounts to a total rejection of Chomsky’s core idea that the syntax of any individual language reflects an instance of a universal grammar (UG).  Nicholas Evans and Stephen C. Levinson have published a paper in the wonderful journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, “The Myth of Language Universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science” (uncorrected final draft available here). Also published with the paper were a series of responses including many sharp retorts from generative grammarians who still firmly believe in UG. They score their points, but the fact that the issue has returned underlines the basic fact: after fifty years of proclaiming the existence of a UG, we still don’t know what it is. All in all the paper and responses make for a brutal slugfest.

This is a great post, not just for it’s overview and discussion of the topic, but also for pointing to such a great discussion. I’ve always regretted not reading up more on UG and criticisms, beyond basic linguistic courses. This could be a good start to get back in the game 🙂

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