Saturday, September 1, 2012

Universal Grammar

I'm taking a typology course. One of the focuses of the class will be the existence of Universal Grammar. UG is one of those ideas that has a lot of appeal on first glance.

Everyone you've ever met, with so few exceptions that it might as well be everyone, speaks at least one language. There is very little variance in basic language skills: do you know anyone who only knows part of their language? No one knows just the words but not the syntax. All adults are competent speakers of their native language. When children learn their first language, they seem to follow enough of the same track that you get presentations like this. Languages also seem to fall into a few basic groups (e.g. if verbs come before objects, your language probably has prepositions and not postpositions).

It would seem like there is something to this notion of UG.

On the other hand, I don't think I've seen any evidence of the particular circuitry in the brain that is associate with language in humans—and no other animal.

And that's the crux of it.  There's no physical evidence for UG—just a bunch of speech that might be more simply explained other ways. Don't get me wrong. If solid physical evidence for UG were presented, I'd get on board. Right now. Until then, color me skeptical. Right here and right now, UG seems like the ether that 19th-century physicists were proposing as a way to allow light waves to spread.