A pair of dice offers a useful metaphor to explain what Chomsky means when he refers to universal grammar as a “set of constraints”. Before we throw the pair of dice, we know that the result will be a number from 2 to 12, but nobody would take a bet on its being 3.143. Similarly, a newborn baby has the potential to speak any of a number of languages, depending on what country it is born in, but it will not just speak them any way it likes: it will adopt certain preferred, innate structures. One way to describe these structures would be that they are not things that babies and children learn, but rather things that happen to them. Just as babies naturally develop arms and not wings while they are still in the womb, once they are born they naturally learn to speak, and not to chirp or neigh.
Universal grammar, then, consists of a set of unconscious constraints that let us decide whether a sentence is correctly formed. This mental grammar is not necessarily the same for all languages. But according to Chomskyian theorists, the process by which, in any given language, certain sentences are perceived as correct while others are not, is universal and independent of meaning.
In the 1990s, Chomsky’s research focused on what he called the “minimalist program”, which attempted to demonstrate that the brain’s language faculties are the minimum faculties that could be expected, given certain external conditions that are imposed on us independently. In other words, Chomsky began to place less emphasis on something such as a universal grammar embedded in the human brain, and more emphasis on a large number of plastic cerebral circuits. And along with this plasticity would come an infinite number of concepts. The brain would then proceed to associate sounds and concepts, and the rules of grammar that we observe would in fact be only the consequences, or side effects, of the way that language works. Analogously, we can, for example, use rules to describe the way a muscle operates, but these rules do nothing but explain what happens in the muscle; they do not explain the mechanisms that the brain uses to generate these rules.
Until Chomsky propounded his theory of universal grammar in the 1960s, the empiricist school that had dominated thinking about language since the Enlightenment held that when children came into the world, their minds were like a blank slate. Chomsky’s theory had the impact of a large rock thrown into this previously tranquil, undisturbed pond of empiricism.
Another approach that offers an alternative to Chomsky’s universal grammar is generative semantics, developed by linguist George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkeley. In contrast to Chomsky, for whom syntax is independent of such things as meaning, context, knowledge, and memory, Lakoff shows that semantics, context, and other factors can come into play in the rules that govern syntax. In addition, metaphor, which earlier authors saw as a simple linguistic device, becomes for Lakoff a conceptual construct that is essential and central to the development of thought.
Lastly, even among those authors who embrace Chomsky’s universal grammar, there are various conflicting positions, in particular about how this universal grammar may have emerged. Steven Pinker, for instance, takes an adaptationist position that departs considerably from the exaptation thesis proposed by Chomsky.
This view became radically questioned, however, by the American linguist Noam Chomsky. For Chomsky, acquiring language cannot be reduced to simply developing an inventory of responses to stimuli, because every sentence that anyone produces can be a totally new combination of words. When we speak, we combine a finite number of elements—the words of our language—to create an infinite number of larger structures—sentences.
CHOMSKY: I think the most important work that is going on has to do with the search for very general and abstract features of what is sometimes called universal grammar: general properties of language that reflect a kind of biological necessity rather than logical necessity; that is, properties of language that are not logically necessary for such a system but which are essential invariant properties of human language and are known without learning. We know these properties but we don’t learn them. We simply use our knowledge of these properties as the basis for learning.
CHOMSKY: Yes, we must. In fact, by universal grammar I mean just that system of principles and structures that are the prerequisites for acquisition of language, and to which every language necessarily conforms.
Among them, the idea of universal grammar in which is usually credited to linguist Noam Chomsky, remains the most notable and controversial theory over time.