Prof. Nick Enfield

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Cognitive Science . Cultural Studies . Linguistics

Chomsky’s universal grammar is dead

Thanks to their experience in field research, the Max Planck scientists are challenging an established theory of linguistics with their own theory of a universal infrastructure of linguistic usage. To this day, Noam Chomsky’s concept of a single, deep grammar that is valid for all languages is still the dominant one in the discipline. Followers of Chomsky’s teachings claim to be able to work out universal commonalities in language structure. According to them, all languages have structures like nouns, verbs, adjectives and auxiliaries, as well as rules on word order in a sentence.

The linguists believe that, however different they may be, all of the languages of the world serve the same purpose: the organization of society. Zoom Image
The linguists believe that, however different they may be, all of the languages of the world serve the same purpose: the organization of society. [less]

Not true, says linguist and anthropologist Stephen Levinson, Director at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen, citing examples from languages that an untrained language user could not even pronounce: “Riau Indonesian has no rules governing word order; the Australian languages Kayardild and Bininj Gun-wok have no auxiliary verbs; and in Lao, a special verb form is used instead of adjectives.”

Furthermore, there are certain specific characteristics that no inventor of an artificial language would ever think up, as they appear, at first glance, to be too obscure. For instance, the Native American language Kiowa has no standard form for the plural. Instead, speakers indicate whether they’re talking about an unusual number for a specific object, such as more than two legs or only two individual pebbles. All languages appear to have a common purpose: communication that makes possible the organization of society. But the existence of universality on a structural level – that is, Chomsky’s universal grammar described above – is something that he and Nick Enfield consider to be a myth.

“Languages differ so significantly at every level of their structure that we find it difficult to identify even a single feature that is common to all of them,” says the Max Planck Director. “We are the only species whose communication systems fundamentally differ from each other in form and content. If you think about the evolution of language but ignore this fact, you miss the one characteristic that makes our species remarkable.”

Michael Tomasello backs Stephen Levinson up on this point. A Director at the Leipzig-based Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Tomasello states emphatically: “Universal grammar is dead,” pointing out that scientists are not able to say exactly what it is that’s supposed to be universal – nor do they have any clear way of finding out.

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