You are on page 1of 1

Key concepts in ELT

Universal Grammar

Closely related to the principles are the parameters, parts of UG which are allowed to vary in a
limited fashion and which therefore explain the
linguistic variation that obviously exists. For
example, the execution of binding principle A
may vary from language to language, largely in
terms of how far from an anaphor (a reflexive or
reciprocal pronoun) its antecedent may be located,
with some languages permitting long-distance
antecedents (e.g. Mandarin), and others enforcing
only strictly local anaphora (e.g. English); likewise,
verb phrases in various languages may be headfirst (i.e. verb object (VO) as in English) or headfinal (i.e. object verb (OV), as in Hindi).
An important aspect of Chomsky's theory is the
argument that human beings are innately predisposed to learn natural languages. Thus, any
normal human child can learn any natural
language he or she is exposed to, a process that
occurs relatively effortlessly and rapidly. Moreover, child language acquisition takes place in the
absence of any negative data (i.e. ungrammatical
examples), and as a result of exposure to evidence
which is random, unsystematic, and devoid of the
kind of abstract information that is crucial to the
196

structure of human language. By extension, the


UG hypothesis has had considerable impact on
theoretical research in second language acquisition, where a major issue in recent years has been
whether, and to what extent, an adult language
learner has access to UG (see White 1992 for a
good introduction).
Note that it is possible to speak of language
universals without committing oneself to the
concept of UG, as for example some typologists
do, who simply take universals to mean characteristics that are found in all (absolute universals) or
most (relative universals) languages (Croft 1990).
However, the notion of UG may be held to be a
possible logical extension of the idea of universals,
and any efforts to account for (rather than just
describe) whatever linguistic properties are universally or widely attested are likely to yield some
theory of UG. It is, therefore, not surprising that
attempts have been made to explain linguistic
universals, such as they are, in more than one way.
For instance, in addition to the Chomskyan
explanation, there are functional explanations
that consider these universals to be a reflection
of the systems of meaning and use (Siewierska
1991), and cognitive ones which emphasize the
similarity linguistic structures supposedly bear
with various other cognitive domains, such as the
perceptual systems (Langacker 1987).
Dr Anjum P. Saleemi, Department of English
Language and Literature, National University of
Singapore
References
Cook, V. J. 1988. Chomsky's Universal Grammar.
Oxford: Blackwell.
Chomsky, N. 1988. Language and Problems of
Knowledge: The Managua Lectures. Cambridge,
MA.: MIT Press.
Chomsky, N. and H. Lasnik. 1993. 'Principles and
parameters theory' in J. Jacobs (ed.). Syntax: An
International Handbook of Contemporary
Research. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Croft, W. 1990. Typology and Universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Langacker, R. 1987. Foundations of Cognitive
Grammar, vol. 1: Theoretical Prerequisites.
Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press.
Siewierska, A. 1991. Functional Grammar. London: Routledge.
White, L. 1992. Universal Grammar and Second
Language Acquisition. Amsterdam: John
Benjamins.

ELT Journal Volume 49/2 April 1995 Oxford University Press 1995

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ by guest on July 24, 2013

By far the most popular current conception of


Universal Grammar (UG) is the one due to the
generative linguist Noam Chomsky, whose theory
of UG is supposed to be a theory of the human
language faculty, i.e. a module of the mind/brain
involved in the basic design of language. More
specifically, he employs the term UG to refer to a
system of principles and parameters that underlie
all human languages (see Chomsky 1988 for a
simple exposition).
A major claim is that there are some highly
abstract universal linguistic principles, such as the
binding principles (named A, B, and C, respectively) determining what can or cannot be the
antecedent of an anaphoric, pronominal, or fully
referential nominal element. Other currently wellknown principles include: subjacency, the Head
Movement Constraint, the Empty Category
Principle (see Cook 1988 and Chomsky and
Lasnik 1993 for definitions and examples). These
principles are good examples of formal universals,
i.e. linguistic constraints of an abstract nature, as
opposed to substantive universals, or linguistic
primitives, which are best exemplified by
grammatical categories like N(oun), V(erb),
P(reposition), etc.