ISSN 1991-3087 Rambler's Top100



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Universal grammar


Karim Nazari Bagha,

Islamic Azad University Astara Branch, Iran.


I. The Theory of Universal Grammar

A. An Overview.

The goals of this theory are to describe language as a property of the human mind. Chomsky has said of this property: Universal Grammar (UG) is the system of principles, conditions, and rules that are elements or properties of all human languages [Chomsky, 1976: 29].

All human beings share part of their knowledge of language; no matter which language they speak. Universal grammar is their common inheritance. Universal Grammar is the description of their genetic endowment, i.e. their language.

Universal Grammar is concerned with the internal structure of the human mind. According to UG theory the speaker (of any language) knows a set of principles that apply to all languages.

The Theory of universal Grammar also holds that the speaker knows parameters that vary in different languages. Acquiring language means learning how these principles apply to a particular language, and which value is appropriate for each parameter.

Despite the traditional linguistics which made vague suggestion about properties of the mind, UG attempts to offer precise statements based on specific evidence. Each principle of language that is offered is a claim about the mind of the speaker and the nature of language acquisition. UG tries to integrate grammar, mind and language acquisition.

B. Universal [lat. Universal 'having general application'] (also language universal].

Grammatical universals are properties (or hypotheses) about such properties) which are common to all human languages. According to Greenberg (1966), the following formal and logical typology of universals can be postulated: (a) unrestricted universals (e.g. every language has vowels); (b) unidirectional implications between two properties (e.g. if a language has a dual in its number system, then it also has a plural, but not vice versa); (c) limited equivalence, which refers to bidirectional implications between non-universal properties (e.g. if a language has a lateral click, then it also has a dental click and vice versa); (d) statistical universals, which have the character of quasi universals (e.g. with very few exceptions, nasals occur in all the world's languages); (e) statistical correlations which refer to the relations between properties (such as, if a certain property is present, e.g. a specification of the second person is not specified). Studies attempting to explain language universals generally assume one of the following three basic theoretical points of departure. (a) all languages have developed from one common language. Because all languages seem to be subject to constant change, this explanation is usually unsatisfactory. (b) language fulfills the same functions in all language communities, and this has conditioned similar grammatical structures in all languages. (c) All languages have the same biological basis in human with regard to their innate speech ability. Points (b) and (c) are not always mutually exclusive, but may actually complement each other. In the model going back to Noam Chomsky, universals are the basis of the innate language acquisition device, which enables children to learn the complex grammar of a natural language in a very short time.

C. Universal Grammar.

In Noam Chomsky's Revised Extended Standard Theory (= REST) of transformational grammar, universal grammar corresponds to the genetically determined biological foundations of language acquisition. The goal of linguistic description is to postulate general traits and tendencies in all languages on the basis of grammars of individual languages. These universal structures are seen in correlation with psychological phenomena of linguistic development. The concept of universal grammar is based on the assumption of an unmarked core grammar describing 'natural case', which is seen as part of competence. Through maturation, i.e. actualization of the rules and constraints in individual languages, the specific individual grammar is developed on the basis of universal grammar.

D. Some Principles of Universal Grammar.

To see how Universal Grammar works, let us present here some of the principles held in this theory:

1. Structure Dependency

According to this principle, knowledge of language relies on the structural relationships in the sentence rather than on the sequence of items. A sentence cannot be analyzed as simply a sequence of words but rather must be regarded as having a certain hierarchical structure. Thus a simple sentence such as (1)

1) The boy would arrive.

Is not a sequence of four words: the, boy, would, and, arrive. Rather each word of this sentence is structure dependent, that is, each word belongs to a structure of sentence. Thus for (1) we have the following structure:



In order to make the question (3):

3) Would the boy arrive?

It is not the words which get moved, but it is the constituents AUX and NP which are getting moved. The AUX has moved to the left of NP.

2. The Head Parameter

The principle of structure dependency seems common to all languages. Yet languages differ in specific ways. To see how languages differ, take the example of head parameter, which specifies the order of elements in a language. The Noun Phrase the boy has a Head boy and the determiner the. In the same way the Verb Phrase entered the room, the head is the verb enter.

An important way in which languages differ is in the order of the elements within the phrase. In the English Noun Phrases, the Head appears on the left of other elements:

4) the boy with and umbrella

boy → head , with an umbrella → complement

The Head boy appears before its complement. Thus, English is Head-First. Japanese, on the other hand, uses Head on the right of complement. So Japanese is Head-last. The child learning the grammar of some particular language then simply has to find out what the permissible order of elements is in that language. The Head Parameter admits a limited range of alternatives: Head-First or Head Last. English sets the Head Parameter in still another way.

3. The Projection Principle

In the standard theory there was a set of rules called Subcategorization Rules. According to these rules put was categorized as (5) below:

5) put: V, + [ - - - - - - - NP] + [- - - - - - - - -PP]

This rule says put is a verb and is subcategorized as allowing an NP and a PP coming after it in the place specified by [ - - - -- - - -].

An example would be (6) below:

6) Put the book on the shelf.

In the standard theory there was yet another set of rules, called Phrases Structure Rules. One of these rules was the following

7) VP→ V(NP) (PP)

This rule says VP consists of V and may have NP and PP after it.

This rule (7) seems to repeat the same information given for the lexical entry (5) above. Since the information is provided in the lexicon, it needs not to be stated in the syntax.

One of the aims of the theory of Government-Binding (GB) is not to separate syntactic and lexical phenomena. Consequently, many aspects of language that earlier linguistic models dealt with as syntax are now handled as idiosyncrasies of lexical items. The syntax is simplified and lexicon is given a heavy duty. The combination of X-bar theory and the projection Principle welds syntax and the lexicon together.

Thus, the information stated for the lexical entries need not to be repeated again in the syntax. The lexical entry is said to "project" on to the syntax. The projection principle of GB says;

8) The properties of lexical entries project on to the syntax of the sentence.

This principle has a lot of consequences. One of these consequences is that it renders much of the system of phrase structure rules worthless.

4. C Selection (category selection)

In the case of verb put in the form (5) above repeated here for ease of reference as (9) below:

9) put [- - - - - - - - -NP][- - - - - - - - -NP]

We may say the lexical entry (put) is projected onto the structure of the sentence. In other words, the lexical items put, c selects (category selects) the categories that go with it. It selects the possible complements that may go with it.

II. Concepts of Government Binding Theory

Chomsky in his standard theory views the grammar of a natural language as some thing best described as a set of interacting components. In the recent trend of linguistics called Government Binding theory, Chomsky brings about some radical changes to which we will refer below:

a) Deep Structure Versus D- Structure

The only major difference between standard theory and Government-Binding theory is that the rules of semantic component (in the Standard Theory) now operate exclusively on Surface Structure or S-Structure in the GB framework.

b) Terminological Changes

In the GB theory some new terms have replaced the earlier terms in the standard theory. A chart may seem helpful:


Standard Theory

GB Theory

a. deep structure

D- structure

b. surface structure

S- structure

c. phonological rules

Phonetic form or PE rules

d. semantic component

Logical form or LF rules


Thus deep structure in Standard Theory corresponds to D-Structure in GB, etc.

S-Structures are the product of the application of transformational rules to D- Structures, i.e.:

11) D-Structures ← Transformations → S-Structures.

D-Structure is related to S-Structure by transformations. Phonetic Form (PF) and Logical Form (LF) components both interact S-Structure as it is shown in (12) below:



X-bar syntax integrates the lexicon with the syntax. The information given for the lexical entries such as the verb put, for instance, (see No. 5 above) need not to be repeated again in the syntax. The lexical entry is said to project on to the syntax. The projection principle projects the characteristics of lexical entries on to the syntax and links D-Structure to S-Structure and LF to the lexicon by specifying the possible contexts in which a particular lexical item can occur. It has always been recognized that there are restrictions on what words can occur in what constructions; some verbs, for instance, are followed by Noun Phrases:

13) The boy found out the truth.

And some are not:

14) The boy disappeared.

Thus each lexical item in the language has idiosyncratic properties of its own which are recorded in its lexical entry. The Phonetic Form Component is roughly the old phonological rules in the Standard Theory. The component converts, for instance, the form {bag + s} as {bagz}.

Within GB theory the rules of the semantic component are now called LF rules (i.e. rules which determine Logical Form).

Summarizing what we have said so far, the grammar of some language is assumed to consist of the following components:


a) lexicon

b) categorical components (i.e. Phrase Structure

rules, constrained by X-bar Theory)

c) transformational component

d) PF component

e) LF component

The rules of (a) and (b) together form the Base and generate D-Structure; D-Structures then are mapped into PF and LF by the rules of the PF and LF components.

C. Principles Versus Rules

In GB theory most of properties of the system and the manner of the interaction of its subcomponents are supposed to follow from general principles rather the rule system.

An example will make this point clear. The phrase structure rules specify that a Noun Phrase contains a Head Noun, a Verb Phrase contains a Verb head, a Prepositional Phrase contains a preposition Head, etc.

Then a principle combined all these specific rules into a principle (16) below:

16) XP - - - - - - - - X - - - - - - - - -

This principle reads Every X phrase must have an X as its Head. Thus, a principle is universal whereas rules might be idiosyncratic behaviors of a specific language.




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05.10.2009 .

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