That our colleague Noam A. Chomsky no longer argues for a rich innate universal grammar (UG), containing many dozens (or even hundreds) of substantive features or categories, is old news. In Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch (2002), the authors say that the domain-specific faculty of language (=FLN) comprises only the property of recursion, nothing more. (This may still be called “UG”, and the headline of this post may thus be a little imprecise – but what I focus on is that Chomsky no longer argues for a rich UG of the sort that would be relevant for the ordinary grammarian and, e.g., for syntax textbooks.)
Why is this worth repeating? Because of a lot of current research on grammar is still based on the assumption that there is a rich set of innate features and categories, not only in phonology. Generative linguists routinely ask questions such as “Is this form in my language a verb or an adjective?” – “Is this construction noun incorporation or something else?” – “Is this nominal in the spec position of VP or in some other position?” – “Is this element a clitic or an affix?” (cf. Haspelmath 2015). Such questions only make sense if it is assumed that all these category types are given in advance (a priori), and that every form in a language must belong to one of these pre-established categories.
Of course, it could be that Chomsky is wrong, but if so, one would like to see someone saying this clearly. Very strangely, what I observe is anti-Chomskyans rejecting universal grammar (e.g. Evans & Levinson 2009; Ibbotson & Tomasello 2016), and Chomskyans defending universal grammar in some unclear abstract sense – whereas Chomsky himself seems to largely agree with the anti-Chomskyan view. (I really pity newcomers to the field of linguistics – they must be terribly confused by what is going on.)
In a blogpost earlier this year, Norbert Hornstein, who is generally a staunch defender of the Minimalist programme, said that (surprisingly for me, and for him as well) he actually agreed with me that categories and features are probably not innate natural kinds:
I found the whole discussion to be disconcertingly convincing and believe me when I tell you that I did not expect this. MH and I do not share a common vision of what linguistics is all about. I am a big fan of the idea that FL is richly structured and contains at least some linguistically proprietary information. MH leans towards the idea that there is no FL and that whatever generalizations there might be across grammars are of the Greenberg variety.
Hornstein still thinks that there is a “rich UG”, and he says that “the arguments that I generally present for something like a domain-specific UG involve structural conditions on well-formedness like those found in the theories of Subjacency, the ECP, Binding theory, etc. … And all of these forms of argument lose traction when the issue involves features, categories and their innate status.” – apparently not realizing that his favourite arguments for UG also rely on categories and features. In any event, even if he is not as radical about a lean UG as Chomsky’s 21st century writings (where nothing apart from recursion is UG), Hornstein’s view is equally incompatible with current practice in generative grammar.
Thus, generative grammarians currently seem to lack an ideological superstructure. Noam Chomsky is treated as a nice guy who still gives philosophical interviews to students, but does not seem to be relevant to linguistics anymore.
Curiously, the extent to which Chomsky is now out of touch with mainstream generative practice is highlighted by different ways of thinking about alien languages (yes, languages of hypothetical extra-terrestrial beings). On the occasion of the release of the movie “Arrival” in 2016, linguist Jessica Coon (whose university office was used for shooting a scene with the linguist/actor Amy Adams in the movie) was interviewed about alien langages, and her answer reflected the old 20th century view that there is a rich innate (human-)universal grammar:
Question: So if universal language theory only applies to humans, there’s a real danger that if an alien race started communicating we’d have no hope of deciphering it?
Jessica Coon: Yeah, definitely. When people talk about universal grammar it’s just the genetic endowment that allows humans to acquire language. There are grammatical properties we could imagine that we just don’t ever find in any human language, so we know what’s specific to humans and our endowment for language. There’s no reason to expect aliens would have the same system. In fact, it would be very surprising if they did. But while having a better understanding of human language wouldn’t necessarily help, hopefully it’d give us tools to know how we might at least approach the problem.
(The interview was published at http://www.playboy.com/articles/real-life-linguist-behind-arrival and accessed in January 2017, but is no longer available.)
If UG consists of highly specific but accidental properties (with no particular relation to the communicative functions of languages), then there is indeed no reason to think that alien languages would conform to UG.
By contrast, Noam Chomsky’s recent comments bring human languages and alien languages closer together. At a conference organized earlier this year in Los Angeles, by an organization interested in extraterrestrial intelligence, Chomsky said:
“the Martian language might not be so different from human language after all”
This makes good sense if there is no (or only a minimal) UG, because then the alien languages would be constrained by the same factors as human languages (including the laws of physics, which are presumably in force everywhere in the same way).
When I was invited to give a talk at ConSOLE 25 in Leipzig in 2017, shortly after watching the movie “Arrival”, I couldn’t resist commenting on Coon’s views on alien languages – and what I said was not that different from the views expressed by Chomsky (again confirming that I am also a minimalist, of sorts).
I said the following (see my handout here):
We wouldn’t expect aliens to have the same representational (=UG) constraints as humans, because presumably they have different brains and minds. But their languages would be expected to be subject to very similar functional-adaptive constraints as human languages, if the languages are used for communication in much the same way as humans use their language.
What’s different from Chomsky’s thinking here is that I appealed to adaptation to the communicative function of languages, but Chomsky has come to embrace some kind of functionalist (or at least domain-general) thinking as well:
“With the conceptual barriers imposed by the format framework overcome, we need no longer assume that the means of generating structured expressions are highly articulated and specific to language. We can seriously entertain the possibility that they might be reducible to language-independent principles, whether or not there are homologous elements in other domains and organisms. We can, in short, try to sharpen the question of what constitutes a principled explanation for properties of language, and turn to one of the most fundamental questions of the biology of language: to what extent does language approximate an optimal solution to conditions that it must satisfy to be usable at all, given extralinguistic structural architecture?” (Chomsky 2005: 9-10)
I don’t really understand what Chomsky means here, and why he doesn’t mention the communicative function of languages (which has a strong and fairly obvious effect on the shapes of all languages), but in any event, it is clear that Chomsky’s thinking since at least 2002 is not really compatible with the practice of mainstream generative grammar.