DeGraff on equality, universal grammar, and creolization

Michel DeGraff is a prominent creolist and advocate of Haitian Creole, who works as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has a recent short piece on human equality and UG (universal grammar), published on the occasion of Noam A. Chomsky’s 90th birthday.

DeGraff’s central point is that all cultures have equal value, and so have all languages – which should lead us to make a greater effort to support disadvantaged languages. For example, Haitian Creole speakers should be given the chance to attend school in their native language, even in advanced subjects.

This has long been uncontroversial, but DeGraff tries to link the equal-value view of human societies and languages to interpretations of the history of creole language structures, and ultimately to Chomsky’s nativist ideas:

“the beauty of Noam’s UG is that, once it’s adequately understood, it leaves no room for interpreting typological variation on a biased, hierarchized scale. The “Universal” in UG, … encompasses all of humanity without postulating, or searching for, “grades of man”… Whatever default or unmarked grammatical traits might be hypothesized by UG, these will be found among diverse groupings of languages – on all continents and across young and old languages, Creoles and non-Creole languages, colonial and non-colonial languages, etc. … Such a view of UG is consistent with Noam’s egalitarian view of humanity.”

DeGraff is not the first to make a connection between the idea of innate linguistic knowledge and equality – Chomsky himself has sometimes tried to link his philosophical ideas about the human mind with his political positions. This seems an important question: If it were true that our scientific understanding of the human mind has political consequences, then it would take on a new significance: theoretical linguistics would have an important social application.

But I think that DeGraff is wrong in a number of ways. The enlightenment claim of equality of all humans, regardless of their social position or ethnicity, is unrelated to the idea of innate linguistic knowledge (though it might rely on the idea of innate moral knowledge – I will not go into this). Human equality seems fully compatible both with radical empiricism and radical rationalism.

Yes, Western intellectuals were terribly wrong when they thought that different cultures (and thus also different languages) formed a qualitative scale, with some being superior and others inferior. But this error was the almost universal view well into the 19th century, and it is well-known that even Charles Darwin (who opposed slavery) expressed racist ideas typical of his time. But what is the source of this error, and is it related to our views on the source of linguistic knowledge?

Seeing themselves as the centre of the world and others as inferior was hardly specific to Western people. It almost seems like a cultural universal: The others are often the enemies, and as long as we are victorious or keep them in check, we regard ourselves as better (having the right faith, higher civilization, the better political system, etc). It is only when we realize that the others are stronger, and have desirable possessions that we lack, that we may want to become like them (and may in fact be willing to abandon aspects of our own culture). So how did Western intellectuals come to take a more relativistic view? Did their understanding of language play a role? DeGraff mentions August Schleicher (a well-known historical linguist in Jena in the pre-Neogrammarian period, i.e. the mid 19th century), who still held the old view that Latin and Greek are more advanced than hypothesized primitive languages of earlier times (though he struggled to explain that French and English seemed less complex than their ancestors, and thus seemed to exhibit a less advanced stage).

A key step forward was taken by the scientific rigour of the Neogrammarians (the Leipzig school of the 1870s and 1880s and their numerous followers). The Neogrammarians rejected the Romantic views of Schleicher and earlier authors, not because they had good reasons to assume equality, but because there was no evidence for an earlier, primitive stage of language(s). It took a few decades for their views to become fully part of the common knowledge, but definitely by the time of Sapir’s famous book “Language” (1921), no serious linguist talked about an earlier primitive stage of human language anymore.

(DeGraff seems to lump Schleicher together with the Neogrammarians, but in fact, their research programme was quite antithetical to the Romantic speculations of Schleicher and their other predecessors.)

Moreover, the Neogrammarians put emphasis on the living languages – not only the written record (plus perhaps folk songs or folk stories, as in the work of Romantic authors like Herder and Grimm), but also the spoken languages were to become a subject matter of scientific linguistics. There is no clear beginning date for linguistic fieldwork, but an early famous publication was Winteler’s 1876 description of the Kerenzer dialect (of Swiss German), which was phonologically sophisticated and supported Neogramarians tenets. Toward the end of the 19th century, more and more fieldworkers studied unwritten languages in a serious way, and found no evidence whatsoever for the older speculative idea that grammatical complexity correlated with social complexity (or cultural/military “superiority”). Thus, linguists abandoned the earlier speculative ideas when evidence against them accumulated.

Why would DeGraff think that Chomsky’s idea of innate knowledge plays a role in all this? After all, the biological unity of humankind is not in question, and the relevant discussions have long centred on cultural diversity (and possible classifications of different cultures, including languages, as more or less “complex”; as in McWhorter 2001). Does UG somehow “force” speakers to acquire a fully complex language, not permitting cultural variation in “complexity”? I don’t see why, and in fact, in the discussion of Everett’s claims about the Pirahã language (that it lacks recursion and that Pirahã culture is non-complex in other ways), defenders of the Chomskyan position have usually emphasized that UG does not force a language to have the features it permits. As Daniel Harbour put it:

“If the Pirahã don’t have [recursive] sentences, that’s a fact about how their language is configured. It’s not a fact about their hardware.” (in a 2012 blogpost)

Moreover, one could even argue for a position opposite to DeGraff’s from a UG perspective. In his recent piece, he does not mention Derek Bickerton’s “bioprogram” view of creolization (though it is discussed in Aboh & DeGraff 2016), but it appears that Bickerton’s proposal is actually his main target here. Under the influence of Chomsky, Bickerton (1984) had claimed that creoles represent UG in its pristine form, and that noncreole languages (“older languages”) include many features that are not part of the bioprogram/UG. This could be described as the idea that “Chomsky’s UG would provide a genetically determined structural “baseline” for establishing a hierarchy of languages – from lesser to “more highly organized languages”, which DeGraff rejects.

DeGraff offers no arguments against Bickerton’s proposals, and such arguments may indeed be superfluous because the bioprogram claims have been widely criticized and almost universally rejected by the community of creolists. But it is very strange that DeGraff should mention UG and Chomsky as an argument in favour of his view, when in fact the Chomskyan ideas are also fully compatible with the opposite view.

Aboh & DeGraff (2016) make some very important points about traditional geographical biases in creole linguistics (points also made by Michaelis (2016; 2019) and Blasi et al. (2017)), but their “null theory of creole formation” does not actually need any specific assumptions about UG either. Apparently their paper was published in OUP’s “Handbook of Universal Grammar” because the authors associate themselves with the Chomskyan tradition, and not because of any special insight into creolization that is offered by it.

In the end, DeGraff’s position seems to boil down to advocacy of greater respect for Haitian Creole, and other languages of people historically oppressed by European colonialists. This is a position that all linguists who care about worldwide linguistic diversity will be happy to endorse. It is based on the principles of the enlightenment, not on any additional insights coming from philosophy or psychology. And to the extent that linguists contributed to the understanding of the equality of languages, it was fieldworkers and comparativists like Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, as well as Joseph Greenberg (who was himself also a fieldworker, working on Nigerian languages and cultures in the 1930s) that laid the groundwork for our present understanding.

So I join my colleague Michel in congratulating our colleague Noam on his 90th birthday, and I wish them both success in their struggles for universal social justice (in fact, I am grateful that they are doing this important work for all of us). But let’s discuss the speculative idea of innate knowledge of linguistic structures separately.


Aboh, Enoch O. & Michel DeGraff. 2016. A null theory of creole formation based on universal grammar. In Ian Roberts (ed.), Oxf. handbook of universal grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bickerton, Derek. 1984. The Language Bioprogram Hypothesis. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 7(2). 173–188.
Blasi, Damián E., Susanne Maria Michaelis & Martin Haspelmath. 2017. Grammars are robustly transmitted even during the emergence of creole languages. Nature Human Behaviour 1(10). 723–729. doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0192-4.
McWhorter, John H. 2001. The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars. Linguistic Typology 5(2–3). 125–166.
Michaelis, Susanne Maria. 2016. Avoiding bias in comparative creole studies: Stratification by lexifier and substrate.
Michaelis, Susanne Maria. 2019. World-wide comparative evidence for calquing of valency patterns in creoles. Journal of Language Contact 12(1). 191–231. doi:10.1163/19552629-20190001.
Sapir, Edward. 1921. Language: An introduction to the study of speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.
Winteler, Jost. 1876. Die Kerenzer Mundart des Kantons Glarus in ihren Grundzügen dargestellt. CF Wintr’sche Verlagshandlung.



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