Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
More options …

Open Linguistics

Editor-in-Chief: Ehrhart, Sabine

Covered by:
Elsevier - SCOPUS
Clarivate Analytics - Emerging Sources Citation Index

Open Access
See all formats and pricing
More options …

The Place of Universal Grammar in the Study of Language and Mind: A Response to Dabrowska (2015)

Oliver Boxell
  • The Cognitive Science Institute, Unit 6, 611 Old Meridian Street, Greenwood, IN, 46143, United States of America
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
Published Online: 2016-09-30 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/opli-2016-0017


Generative Linguistics proposes that the human ability to produce and comprehend language is fundamentally underwritten by a uniquely linguistic innate system called Universal Grammar (UG). In her recent paper What is Universal Grammar, and has anyone seen it? Ewa Dabrowska reviews a range of evidence and argues against the idea of UG from a Cognitive Linguistics perspective. In the current paper, I take each of Dabrowska’s arguments in turn and attempt to show why they are not well founded, either because of flaws in her argumentation or because of a careful consideration of the available empirical evidence. I also attempt to demonstrate how evidence from the fields Dabrowska reviews actually supports the notion of UG. However, arguments are additionally presented in favor of integrating an understanding of domain-specific UG with an understanding of domain-general cognitive capacities in order to understand the language faculty completely.

Keywords: Universal Grammar; I-language; psycholinguistics; neurolinguistics; evolutionary linguistics; language acquisition


  • Adger, David. (2015). Mythical myths: comments on Vyvyan Evans’ ‘‘The Language Myth’’. Lingua 158, 76-80. Google Scholar

  • Alexander, Rona, Regi Boehme & Barbara Cupps. (1993). Normal development of functional motor skills: The first year of life. Tuscon, AZ: Therapy Skill Builders. Google Scholar

  • Allen, Shanley & Martha Crago. (1996). Early passive acquisition in Inuktitut. Journal of Child Language 23, 129–155. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Alloway, Trace, Susan Gathercole & Susan Pickering. (2006). Verbal and visuo-spatial short term and working memory in children: Are they separable? Child Development 77, 1698-1716. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Anderson, Michael. (2010). Neural reuse: a fundamental organizational principle of the brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, 245–313. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X10000853 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Anderson, Vicki, Megan Spencer-Smith & Amanda Wood. (2011). Do children really recover better? Neurobehavioural plasticity after early brain insult. Brain 134, 2197–2221 doi:10.1093/brain/awr103 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Ambrose, Stanley. (2001). Paleolithic technology and human evolution. Science 291, 1748-1753. Google Scholar

  • Baker, Mark. (2001). The Atoms of Language. New York, NY: Basic Books. Google Scholar

  • Barlow, Michael & Suzanne Kemmer. (eds). (2000). Usage Based Models of Language. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press. Google Scholar

  • Behme, Christina & Vyvyan Evans. (2015). Leaving the myth behind: A reply to Adger (2015). Lingua 162, 149-159. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Berman, Ruth. (1985). The acquisition of Hebrew. In D. Slobin (ed.) The Crosslinguistic Study of Language Acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 255–371. Google Scholar

  • Berwick, Robert, Paul Pietroski, Beracah Yankama & Noam Chomsky. (2011). Poverty of the stimulus revisited. Cognitive Science 35, 1207–1242. doi: 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01189.x CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Bever, Thomas & Montserrat Sanz. (1997). Empty categories access their antecedents during comprehension: Unaccusatives in Spanish. Linguistic Inquiry 28, 69-91. Google Scholar

  • Bierwisch, Manfred. (1982). Formal and lexical semantics. Linguistische Berichte 80, 3-17. Google Scholar

  • Bierwisch, Manfred. (1987). Dimensionsadjektive als strukturierender Ausschnitt des Sprachverhaltens. In M. Bierwisch & E. Lang (eds.) Grammatische und konzeptuelle Aspekte von Dimensionsadjektiven. Berlin: Akademie-Verl. Google Scholar

  • Bierwisch, Manfred & Robert Schreuder. (1992). From concepts to lexical items. Cognition 42, 23-60. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Borer, Hagit. (1984). The projection principle and rules of morphology. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Meeting of the North-Eastern Linguistic Society. Amherst, MA. Google Scholar

  • Bradbury, Jane. (2005). Molecular insights into human brain evolution. PLoS Biology 3, doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0030050. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Buccino, Giovanni, Lucia Riggio, Giorgia Melli, Ferdinand Binkofski, Vittorio Gallese & Giacomo Rizzolatti. (2005). Listening to action-related sentences modulates the activity of the motor system: a combined TMS and behavioral study. Brain Research: Cognitive Brain Research 24, 355-363. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Bybee, Joan & Paul Hopper (2001). Introduction to Frequency and the Emergence of Linguistic Structure. In J. L. Bybee & P. Hopper (eds.) Frequency and the Emergence of Linguistic Structure. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Janua Linguarum 4. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (1962). Explanatory models in linguistics. In E. Nagel, P. Suppes, & A. Tarski (eds.) Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 528–550. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (1964). Degrees of Grammaticalness. In J. A. Fodor & J. Katz (eds.) The Structure of Language: Readings in the Philosophy of Language. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 384-389. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (1981). Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (1982). Some Concepts and Consequences of the Theory of Government and Binding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (1986a). Barriers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (1986b). Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origins, and Use. New York, NY: Praeger. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (1991). Some Notes on Economy of Derivation and Representation. In R. Freidin (ed.) Principles and Parameters in Comparative Grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 417-54. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (1995). The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (1998). Minimalist Inquiries: The Framework. MIT Occasional Papers in Linguistics 15. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (2007). Approaching UG from below. In U. Sauerland & H. Gartner (eds.). Interfaces + Recursion = Language? Chomsky’s Minimalism and the View from Syntax-Semantics. New York, NY: Mouton de Gruyter, 1-29. Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. (2013). Problems of Projection. Lingua 130, 33-49. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Chouinard, Michelle & Eve Clark. (2003). Adult reformulations of child errors as negative evidence. Journal of Child Language 30, 637–669. doi: 10.1017/S0305000903005701 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Clahsen, Harald & Mayella Almazan. (2001). Compounding and inflection in language impairment: Evidence from Williams Syndrome (and SLI). Lingua 111, 729-757. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Clahsen, Harald & Jenny Dalalakis. (1999). Tense and agreement in Greek SLI: A case study. Essex Research Reports in Linguistics 24, 1-25. Google Scholar

  • Clottes, Jean. (2001). La grotte Chauvet, l’art des origins. Trans. P. Bahn. (2003). Chavet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times. Utah: University of Utah Press. Google Scholar

  • Crain, Stephen & Diane Lillo-Martin (1999). An Introduction to Linguistic Theory and Language Acquisition. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Google Scholar

  • Crockford, Catherine & Christophe Boesch. (2005). Call combinations in wild chimpanzees. Behaviour 142, 397-421. Google Scholar

  • Curtiss, Susan. (1977). Genie: A psycholinguistic study of a modern day “wild child”. New York, NY: Academic Press. Google Scholar

  • Dabrowska, Ewa. (2012). Different speakers, different grammars: individual differences in native language attainment. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism 2, 219–253. Google Scholar

  • Dabrowska, Ewa. (2015). What exactly is Universal Grammar, and has anyone seen it? Frontiers in Psychology 6, 852. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00852 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Dehaene, Stanislas. (2012). From Word to Sentence: In Search of the Brain Mechanisms for Constituent Structure. Talk presented at the Cognitive Modules and Interfaces Workshop, SISSA. Trieste, Italy. Google Scholar

  • Demetras, Martha, Kathryn Post & Catherine Snow. (1986). Feedback to first language learners: the role of repetitions and clarification questions. Journal of Child Language 13, 275–292. doi: 10.1017/S0305000900008059 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Demuth, Katherine. (1989). Maturation and the acquisition of the Sesotho passive. Language 65, 56–80. doi: 10.2307/414842 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Ding, Nai, Lucia Melloni, Hang Zhang, Xing Tian & David Poeppel. (2015). Cortical tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures in connected speech. Nature Neuroscience 19, doi:10.1038/nn.4186. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Elman, Jeffrey, Elizabeth Bates, Mark Johnson, Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Domenico Parisi & Kim Plunkett. (1996). Rethinking innateness: A connectionist perspective on development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Enard, Wolfgang, Molly Przeworski, Simon Fisher, Cecilia Lai, Victor Wiebe, Takashi Kitano, Anthony Monaco & Svante Pääbo. (2002). Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language. Nature 418, 869-872. Google Scholar

  • Evans, Vyvyan. (2014). The Language Myth: Why Language is not an Instinct. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

  • Evans, Nicholas & Stephen Levinson. (2009). The myth of language universals. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32, 429–492. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Fisher, Simon, Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, Kate Watkins, Anthony Monaco & Marcus Pembrey. (1998). Localization of a gene implicated in severe speech and language disorder. Nature Genetics 18, 168-170. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Fodor, Janet Dean & William Sakas. (2004). Evaluating models of parameter setting. In A. Brugos, L. Micciulla, & C. E. Smith (eds.) BUCLD 28: Proceedings of the 28th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press, 1–27. Google Scholar

  • Gardner, R. Allen, Beatrix Gardner & Thomas Van Cantfort. (eds.). (1989). Teaching Sign Language to Chimpanzees. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. Google Scholar

  • Gleitman, Lila. R. (1981). Maturational determinants of language growth. Cognition 10, 103–114. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Goldin-Meadow, Susan & Heidi Feldman. (1975). The creation of a communication system: A study of deaf children of hearing parents. Sign Language Studies 8, 225-234. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Grodzinsky, Yosef. (2000). The Neurology of Syntax: Language Use Without Broca’s Area. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23, 1-71. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Guasti, Maria. (2002). Language Acquisition: The Growth of Grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Hare, Brian, Josep Call, Bryan Agnetta & Michael Tomasello. (2000). Chimpanzees know what conspecifics do and do not see. Animal Behaviour 59, 771-785. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Hauk, Olaf & Friedemann Pulvermüller. (2004). Neurophyiological distinction of action words in fronto-central cortex. Human Brain Mapping 21, 191-201. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Hauk, Olaf, Ingrid Johnsrude & Friedemann Pulvermüller. (2004). Somatotopic representation of action words in human motor and premotor cortex. Neuron 41, 301-307. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Heyes, Cecilia. (1998). Theory of Mind in nonhuman primates. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 21, 101-148. Google Scholar

  • Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy & Roberta Golinkoff. (1996) How children learn to talk. The World Book Encyclopedia, Health and Medical Annual. Chicago, IL: World Book, Inc., 92-106. Google Scholar

  • Holloway, Ralph, Douglas Broadfield & Michael Yuan. (2004). Brain endocasts: The paleoneurological evidence. In J.H Schwartz & I. Tattersall (eds.) The Human Fossil Record. New York, NY: Wiley-Liss. Google Scholar

  • Joseph, John. (2000). Limiting the arbitrary: Linguistic naturalism and its opposites in Plato’s Cratylus and modern theories of language. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins. Google Scholar

  • Kolb, Bryan, & Robbin Gibb. (2011). Brain plasticity and behaviour in the developing brain. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 20, 265–276. Google Scholar

  • Kosta, Peter & Diego Krivochen. (2012). Some thoughts on language diversity, UG, and the importance of language typology: Scrambling and non-monotonic merge of adjuncts and specifiers in Czech and German. Zeitschrift für Slawistik 57, 377-407. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Lai, Cecilia, Simon Fisher, Jane Hurst, Faraneh Vargha-Khadem & Anthony Monaco. (2001). A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder. Nature 413, 519-523. Google Scholar

  • Lenneberg, Eric. (1967). Biological foundations of language. New York, NY: Wiley. Google Scholar

  • Lyn, Heidi, Patricia Greenfield, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Kristen Gillespie-Lynch & William Hopkins. (2011). Nonhuman primates do declare! A comparison of declarative symbol and gesture use in two Children, two bonobos, and a chimpanzee. Language and Communication 31, 63-74. Google Scholar

  • MacWhinney, Brian. (2008). A unified model. In P. Robinson & N. Ellis (eds.) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. New York, NY: Routledge, 341–371. Google Scholar

  • Marcus, Gary. (2004). The birth of the mind: How a tiny number of genes creates the complexities of human thought. New York, NY: Basic Books. Google Scholar

  • McElree, Brian. & Thomas Bever. (1989). The psychological reality of linguistically defined gaps. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 18, 21-25. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Meyerhoff, Miriam. (2006). Introducing sociolinguistics. New York, NY: Routledge Taylor & Francis. Google Scholar

  • Müller, Ralph. (2009). Language universals in the brain: how linguistic are they? In M. H. Christiansen, C. Collins and S. Edelman (eds.) Language Universals. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 224–253. Google Scholar

  • Nelson, Katherine. (1981). Individual differences in language development: implications for development and language. Developmental Psychology 17, 170–187. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Newmeyer, Frederick. (2008). Universals in syntax. Linguistic Review 25, 35–82. doi: 10.1515/TLIR.2008.002 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Newport, Elissa. (1990). Maturational constraints on language learning. Cognitive Science 14, 11–28. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Peters, Ann & Lise Menn. (1993). False starts and filler syllables: ways to learn grammatical morphemes. Language 69, 742–777. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Plummer, Thomas. (2004). Flaked stones and old bones: Biological and cultural evolution at the dawn of technology. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 47,118-164. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Premack, David & Ann Premack. (2002). Original Intelligence: The Architecture of the Human Mind. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Google Scholar

  • Pinker, Steven. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. Google Scholar

  • Pullum, Geoffrey & Barbara Scholz. (2002). Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments. Linguistic Review 19, 9–50. doi: 10.1515/tlir.19.1-2.9 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Pulvermüller, Friedemann. (2002). The Neuroscience of Language: On Brain Circuits of Words and Serial Order. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

  • Radford, Andrew. (1990). Syntactic theory and the acquisition of English syntax. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Google Scholar

  • Sachs, Jacqueline, Barbara Bard, & Marie Johnson. (1981). Language learning with restricted input: case studies of two hearing children of deaf parents. Applied Psycholinguistics 2, 33–54. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Saxton, Matthew. (2000). Negative evidence and negative feedback: immediate effects on the grammaticality of child speech. First Language 20, 221–252. doi: 10.1177/014272370002006001 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Saxton, Matthew, Bela Kulcsar, Greer Marshall & Mandeep Rupra. (1998). Longer-term effects of corrective input: an experimental approach. Journal of Child Language 25, 701–721. doi: 10.1017/S0305000998003559 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Scholz, Barbara & Geoffrey Pullum. (2002). Searching for arguments to support linguistic nativism. Linguistic Review 19, 185–223. doi: 10.1515/tlir.19.1-2.185 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Sekerina, Irina, Karin Stromswold & Arild Hestvik. (2004). How adults and children process referentially ambiguous pronouns. Journal of Child Language 31, 123-152. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Stojanovik, Vesna, Mick Perkins & Sara Howard. (2004). Williams Syndrome and Specific Language Impairment do not support claims for developmental double dissociations. Journal of Neurolinguistics 17, 403–424. doi:10.1016/j.jneuroling.2004.01.002 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Stout, Dietrich, Nicholas Toth, Kathy Schick & Thierry Chaminade. (2008). Neural correlates of early stone age tool making: Technology, language and cognition in human evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 363, 1939-1949. Google Scholar

  • Stowe, Laurie, Marco Haverkort & Frans Zwarts. (2005). Rethinking the neurological basis of language. Lingua 115, 997–1042. doi: 10.1016/j.lingua.2004.01.013 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Peters, Ann. (1977). Language learning strategies: does the whole equal the sum of the parts? Language 53, 560–573. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Terrace, Herbert. (1979). Nim. New York, NY: Knopf. Google Scholar

  • Tettamanti, Marco, Giovanni Buccino, Maria Saccuman, Vittorio Gallese, Massimo Danna, Paola Scifo, Ferruccio Fazio, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Stephano Cappa & Daniela Perani. (2005). Listening to action related sentences activates fronto-parietal motor circuits. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 17, 273-281. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Townsend, David & Thomas Bever. (1991). Sentence Comprehension: The Integration of Habits and Rules. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Google Scholar

  • Than, Ker. (2012). World’s oldest cave art found – made by neanderthals? National Geographic News. Retrieved September 19th 2015. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120614-neanderthal-cave-paintings-spain-science-pike/ Google Scholar

  • Theakston, Anna, Elena Lieven, Julian Pine & Caroline Rowland. (2001). The role of performance limitations in the acquisition of verb argument structure: an alternative account. Journal of Child Language 28, 127–152. doi: 10.1017/ S0305000900004608 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Todd, Peyton & Jean Aitchison. (1980). Learning language the hard way. First Language 1, 122–140. Google Scholar

  • Trauner, Doris, Karin Eshagh, Angela Ballantyne & Elizabeth Bates. (2013). Early language development after peri-natal stroke. Brain and Language 127, 399–403. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2013.04.006 CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Trueswell, John, Tamara Medina, Alon Hafri & Lila Gleitman. (2013) Propose but verify: Fast mapping meets cross-situational word learning. Cognitive Psychology 66, 126-156. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Ullman, Michael. (2006). The declarative/procedural model and the shallow structure hypothesis. Applied Psycholinguistics 27, 97–105. Google Scholar

  • Vargha-Khadem, Faraneh, Kate Watkins, Katie Alcock, Paul Fletcher & Richard Passingham. (1995). Praxic and nonverbal cognitive deficits in a large family with a genetically transmitted speech and language disorder. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 92, 930-933. Google Scholar

  • Wasow, Thomas. (1997). End-weight from the speaker’s perspective. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 26, 347–361. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Wells, Gordon. (1985). Language Development in the Preschool Years. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar

  • Wiley, Norbert. (2014). Chomsky’s anomaly: Inner speech. International Journal for Dialogical Science 8, 1-11. Google Scholar

About the article

Received: 2015-09-27

Accepted: 2016-08-02

Published Online: 2016-09-30

Citation Information: Open Linguistics, Volume 2, Issue 1, ISSN (Online) 2300-9969, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/opli-2016-0017.

Export Citation

© 2016 Oliver Boxell. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. BY-NC-ND 3.0

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in