O’Connell on Modeling Universal Grammar

Linguistics has become increasingly acquainted with the possibility that grammar, as the capacity to conceive and express novel combinations, is the fundamental definition of language. Having compiled a series of comparative observations between our communicative abilities and those of other species, grammar is the consistent distinction (Tomasello, 2010). This difference between ourselves and other species has inspired questions regarding both how language evolved in the context of our species and how language is acquired in the context of the individual.  The latter question having been afforded unique opportunities to answer with the creative application of statistical modeling (Yang, 2012). Within the broader purview of language acquisition, Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar (UG) has emerged as a preeminent contender to explain how language is acquired (Cook & Newson, 2014). While unproven, the theoretical integrity of UG endures but more importantly, the empirical evidence amounts exponentially. As mentioned previously, among this evidence exists Yang’s statistical applications (Yang, 2012). This statistical model effectively and comprehensively supports UG as the foundation of the human language faculty.

Without explicitly mentioning UG or alternative perspectives like empiricism, Yang introduces the conflicting interpretations of Language acquisition through grammar vs. memorization (Yang, 2012). In the context of human development, children have conveniently modeled the process by which the language faculty initially develops. Yang characterizes a child’s observed capacity to combine linguistic units as linguistic diversity (Yang, 2012). The question remains what enables this diversity. The two competing perspectives of grammar vs. memorization capably represent the argument of nature vs. nurture and more specifically, UG vs. empiricism. Grammar suggests there exists an innate cognitive aptitude for linguistic diversity while memorization contends imitative learning enables linguistic diversity (Yang, 2012).  The two are thematically identical to UG and empiricism, and in the context of this analysis should be considered synonymous with grammar and memorization.

Yang proceeds to define linguistic diversity as a measurable variable, using samples of generative texts from children that associate the determiners “the” and “a” with nouns to get at the question of grammar or memorization (Yang, 2012). Employing a statistical construct, Yang repurposes a model identifying frequencies to study the proportional differences between the combination of the determiner “the” with a particular noun and the determiner “a” with that same noun (Yang, 2012). Having developed two equations, one of which provides an expected number of combinations between the determiners and the nouns in the samples and the other that indicates the actual combinations, Yang applies the metric to determine the viability of both grammar and memorization (Yang, 2012). The results of which demonstrate the expected number of combinations of the “grammar approach” as being identical to the observed number of combinations in the samples (Yang, 2012). Conversely, the model identifies the opposite for the “memorization approach” (Yang, 2012). The consequence of which is profound. This conclusion contributes an empirically nuanced consideration in which linguistic diversity, the combinatorial capacity to create linguistic novelty, is a product of some inherent grammatical device—the central theme of Chomsky’s UG.

After establishing this statistical imperative with the human samples, Yang pursues a similar approach in assessing the possibility that non-human primates possess a similar grammatical ability (Yang, 2012). In his analysis of the renown chimp “Nim Chimpsky”, an empirical fixture and primate marvel, Yang applies a statistical model comparing grammar vs memorization to Nim Chimpsky’s documented ASL signing combinations (Yang, 2012). Like the human samples discussed previously, the ASL sign samples represent linguistic diversity produced by the respective subject. In stark contrast to human children, the expected value of combinations attributed to grammar or more broadly defined as a “rule-based system”, were dramatically less than the actual observed number of combinations (Yang, 2012). Yang subsequently denies the possibility that non-human primates engage a grammar to create novel combinations and alternatively suggests that Nim Chimpsky’s combinations reflected a complex series of learned associations through imitation (Yang, 2012). This observation implicitly expresses that a rule-based system most often prescribed as grammar is the definitive distinction between human language and other species’ communicative forms. While most obviously supporting the interpretation of language as defined by a grammar, this observation also inadvertently champions the premise of Chomsky’s UG because it indicates that grammar is innate.

In a remarkably succinct fashion, Yang develops a series of statistically inventive approaches to resolve the persistent question of how we acquire language. In doing so, two observations arrive at the intersection of nature vs. nurture. The first, humans recruit an inherent grammatical ability to create new linguistic combinations and the second, non-human primates, despite their extraordinary complexity and human instruction, do not. While the former more explicitly so and the latter more implicitly, both observations contribute empirically fundamental evidence to support Chomsky’s UG as an innate condition of the human language faculty.


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Works Cited:

  • Tomasello, M. (2010). Origins of human communication. MIT press.
  • Yang, C. (2013). Ontogeny and phylogeny of language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(16), 6324-6327.
  • Cook, V., & Newson, M. (2014). Chomsky’s universal grammar. John Wiley & Sons.

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