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Universal grammar is a theory of linguistics postulating principles of grammar shared by all languages, thought to be innate to humans. It attempts to explain language acquisition in general, not describe specific languages. This theory does not claim that all human languages have the same grammar, or that all humans are "programmed" with a structure that underlies all surface expressions of human language. Rather, universal grammar proposes a set of rules that would explain how children acquire their language(s), or how they construct valid sentences of their language.

Some students of universal grammar study a variety of grammars to abstract generalizations called linguistic universals, often in the form of "If X holds true, then Y occurs." These have been extended to a range of traits, from the phonemes found in languages, to what word orders languages choose, to why children exhibit certain linguistic behaviors.

The idea can be traced to Roger Bacon's observation that all languages are built upon a common grammar, substantially the same in all languages, even though it may undergo in them accidental variations, and the 13th century speculative grammarians who, following Bacon, postulated universal rules underlying all grammars. The concept of a universal grammar or language was at the core of the 17th century projects for philosophical languages. Later linguists who have influenced this theory include Noam Chomsky, Edward Sapir and Richard Montague, developing their version of the theory as they considered issues of the Argument from poverty of the stimulus to arise from the constructivist approach to linguistic theory. The application of the idea to the area of second language acquisition (SLA) is represented mainly by the McGill linguist Lydia White.

Chomsky's theory

Linguist Noam Chomsky made the argument that the human brain contains a limited set of rules for organizing language. In turn, there is an assumption that all languages have a common structural basis. This set of rules is known as universal grammar.

The fact that people have the ability to learn different languages, and that words and ideas translate from one language to another strongly support this idea. The main point behind this is that all humans have similar linguistic abilities and thought processes.

Another line of support for his theory of universal grammar are the creole languages. These languages were developed and formed when different societies came together and devised their own system of language. Originally these languages were known as pidgins and later became known as creole languages, more mature languages that developed some sense of rules and native speakers. These languages are spoken in several Caribbean societies. One form, Gullah, is spoken by African Americans on coastal islands, in South Carolina and Georgia.

The idea that universal grammar is supported by the creole languages is the fact that such languages all share certain features. Each language, syntactically, use particles to form future and past tenses and multiple negation to deny or negate. Another similarity is that by changing inflection rather than changing words, a question can be implemented.


Some linguists oppose the universal grammar theory; it is outspokenly opposed by Geoffrey Sampson, who maintains that it is possible for children to learn a language without being born with grammatical rules. Sampson believes that universal grammar theories are not falsifiable, arguing that the grammatical generalizations made are simply observations about existing languages and not predictions about what is possible in a language.

See also


  • Chomsky, N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press, 1965. ISBN 0262530074.
  • Tomasello, M. Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press, 2003. ISBN 0674010302.
  • Window on Humanity. A Concise Introduction to Anthropology. Conrad Phillip Kottak. Ed. Kevin Witt, Jill Gordon. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. 2005
  • White, Lydia. "Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar". Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0521796474

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