I was trying to educate myself on "big picture" in theoretical linguistics, and started with often mentioned universal grammar, but found online resources very confusing. According to Wikipedia, "while the majority of linguists accept universal grammar, there have been a few linguists who do not accept the theory." This survey counters with "outsiders have instead taken the articulate envoys from the universalizing generativist camp to represent the consensus view within linguistics." Ouch. Browsing online publications and this site I got the impression that it is a hot topic of debate, and even definitions range from "whatever it turns out to be that all children bring to learning a language", to "common elements in all languages related to mental traits that may or may not be language specific", to "genetic language specific faculty that does or does not include recursive tree syntax", which seems closest to Wikipedia's "ability to learn grammar hard-wired into the brain". I am not in a position to evaluate various pro and con arguments, but I'd like to understand the overall situation.

Is there a definition of universal grammar that "majority of linguists" currently accept? Is there a (different) definition that "majority of linguists" currently reject? Was there a time in the past when "majority of linguists" accepted universal grammar in some sense?

It would be helpful if someone could provide an analogy with other sciences. For example, Wikipedia's language sounds like what might be said about evolution in biology. Is universal grammar like that? Or is it one of several competing mainstream theories, like corpuscular and wave optics in 18th century. Or something else.

Does linguistics have a "paradigm" (agreed upon framework that explains many facts and structures research), be it universal grammar or something else? Is it currently undergoing a "paradigm shift"?

The reason I am asking is because of phrases I read like "generative grammar has to change", or even stronger.

  • 1
    There is a fair amount of agreement among linguists about many things; there are always squabbles about terminology and the presuppositions it entails (linguists who talk about 1, 2, and 3 instead of Aux, Comp, and Merge are making different presuppositions about many things, for instance). Universal Grammar is a matter of faith, since there is no evidence for it. Some presuppose it, others don't. I wouldn't say that a majority of linguists does so, but I don't know a majority of linguists; nobody does.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 0:53
  • 1
    I agree with Greg, though, that it's boring, because even if there were a universal grammar, there's no way we could ever discover it, so it changes nothing.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 0:53
  • 1
    While there may be no interesting answer, this question was nicely formulated.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 16:23

6 Answers 6


The Wikipedia claim that 'the majority of linguists accept universal grammar' is highly unlikely to be true.

I would posit an alternative hypothesis:

The majority of linguists do not care about universal grammar. They may be skeptical or enthusiastic about the whole enterprise but they probably do not know enough about it to be able to adjudicate. It is simply far too irrelevant to any of their professional concerns - it only has any bearing on a linguists work if they study syntax in the GB/minimalist framework. Of those who do know enough, there may be slightly more proponents than opponents, simply because adherence to the dogma is part of the GB/minimalist (Chomskean) framework. The opponents come from language acquisition research (like Tomasello at al) or have looked at the claims and evidence out of idle curiosity and are simply incredulous at the poverty of the evidence and the porousness of the argument (like Sampson or myself). This disparity may make it seem to an external observer that universal grammar is accepted. Many of these external observers are clueless students of philosophy who - in grand philosophy of language tradition - are about 20 years behind the latest developments in linguistics.

That was perhaps a bit more personal perspective than appropriate for SE but I'm not sure in the absence of a comprehensive survey, anything more definitive can be said.

As to the comparison of the position of Universal Grammar (UG) in linguistics to other sciences, it is nothing like relativity or natural selection. It is more like String Theory. It is one contentious (rather far-fetched in many people's opinion) way of fitting some of the spurious data into a model. As far as I can tell, UG can describe a lot less of the data and unifies a lot less of what we know about language than String Theory does.

UG often goes hand in hand with evolutionary psychology which is also highly contentious and more talked about by outsiders than its true position within the sciences merits.

As to a 'paradigm' in linguistics, I think a good place to start would be Dixon's 'Basic Linguistic Theory' which describes things like those jlawler mentioned in his comments - he describes concepts that are used by most linguists regardless of their theoretical framework. There are several competing theoretical frameworks (that may count as paradigms) of which perhaps these four are the most important:

  1. Functional linguistics/grammar in the broadest sense (includes corpus linguistics, discourse studies, conversation studies, linguistic typology, lexicography, etc.)
  2. Generative/formal grammar (linguistics)
  3. Construction/cognitive grammar (linguistics) (close to and possibly fitting under the functionalist paradigm)
  4. Minimalism and UG (related and possibly part of the formal/generative paradigm)

Update: Fixed spelling of RMW Dixon.

  • Dickson -> Dixon. Excellent answer otherwise.
    – TKR
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 17:39
  • Thank you very much for comprehensive and structured answer, you even answered questions I wanted to ask, but wasn't sure how. I wonder how far the string analogy extends, both formal grammar and string theory bring up a lot of interesting mathematics, irrespective of their relation to reality. But leading physicists would say even today that ST is the "best available candidate" for unifying relativity and quantum theory, while there seems to be no such role for UG.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 1:15
  • @Conifold I agree about the difference between UG and ST. Of course, UG is only necessary to solve some rather obscure inconsistencies in rather questionable data about language acquisition that at least partly arise out of the application of the theory on which UG is based. Take away that theory and the inconsistencies disappear. ST is needed to unify two central theories of how the world functions based on huge amounts of experimental and observational data. Commented May 16, 2015 at 6:26
  • Typo: *et al. (This sentence is extra padding because SE has a minimum length requirement for comments.) Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 12:49

While this is an oldish question with some existing good answers, I think there's something fundamental missing from all of them: "Universal grammar" is both ambiguous and vague, and people who "don't believe in UG" are usually not even talking about the same thing as people who "believe in UG".

The core notion of UG is pretty uncontroversial: there is something specific to linguistic structure that's unique to humans, universal across humans, and indispensable to language as we know it.

The controversial part—the part people believe or don't believe—is what that "something" is.1 And it depends on who you ask—and when you ask them.

Since 2002, Noam Chomsky's position has been that UG is just recursion.2 Many people have argued against that, but the argument is usually that there's obviously more to language than just recursion, not less.3

People who argue against UG are instead arguing against Chomsky's early 90s position, which required UG to be a whole lot more heavy-duty, but which nobody believes anymore. Briefly, his paradigm at the time, Principles & Parameters/Government & Binding, strongly implied that UG included a large set of pretty complicated, language-independent principles like "no wh-movement outside an island."4

Since around 1993, GB has been replaced by the Minimalist Program,5 which implies that many of those principles don't have to be specifically built into some language organ; they follow automatically from the idea that language picks the most optimal path to get from sound to meaning.6 Exactly what ends up as still part of UG is hard to say, and doesn't really matter. If pressed, I suspect most people would say they don't know, but it's probably more than just recursion and much less than GB required.

In non-mainstream theoretical grammar approaches, almost everyone has learned that arguing from first principles gets them nowhere but ignored. They need to argue that their theory covers more of the data, or can be used to build an efficient parser (as demonstrated by writing the code for one), or can make psycholinguistic predictions that can be tested in the lab, etc.

So, who does care? Mainly people working in neighboring fields, like computational linguistics, neurolinguistics, or philosophy of mind. And to them, UG still means the version implied by the 1980s theory, or one of its predecessors.7 They sometimes even have pragmatic reasons for arguing against it.8

Are those people even "linguists"? If they are, does not believing in 1980s UG mean they don't believe in UG, or that they're defining it wrong? Who cares?

So, back to the question: Does the majority of linguists accept universal grammar? It depends on who counts as a "linguist"—but, even more, it depends on what exactly "universal grammar" includes. And no good answer to this question is particularly useful.9

1. There's also a lot of baggage attached to the idea that is controversial, such as the idea that UG is so different from every other mental module that it couldn't have evolved the same way. But let's ignore all of that baggage, because it's not actually part of UG.

2. The classic article is "The Faculty of Language". One of the authors, Hauser, has argued that UG is hooking up recursion to language. Chomsky himself has seemed to imply that UG is just recursion itself, and everything else we do with recursion is based on language, but it's not entirely clear. Also, Chomsky has gradually switched to talking about "the language facility, narrow" instead of "universal grammar". If you're interested in the debate on this, the back-and-forth exchange between HCF and Pinker and Jackendoff on most of the substantive issues is explained pretty well on Language Log, with links to the papers.

3. I should probably mention the whole Pirahã mess here. At first, both sides characterized that as a fierce debate about UG. But soon, the only thing the two sides agreed on is that recursion just means "Merge can combine things larger than words"—an individual language might restrict it so Merge can't combine an S inside another S or an NP inside another NP, but it's still recursive. Unless you believe there are languages with no sentences longer than three words, you're not arguing against LFN/UG. That doesn't mean the two sides stopped fighting, just that the fight wasn't about UG. And it leaves UG as something nobody can really argue against (except from the opposite direction—that there's more to language than recursion).

4. Most of the complexity is inside the technical definition of what an "island" is, so I don't want to explain it here. Just trust me, it's not trivial.

5. Explained in Noam Chomsky's 1995 book The Minimalist Program, but you're not going to understand that without a lot of background. Wikipedia's article isn't great, but maybe it works as a starting point.

6. Does that sound fishy? I'm not going to argue in favor of it. But it is certainly true that if you accept that the mind can feasibly do what MP requires, it doesn't need a heavy-duty UG anymore.

7. Basically, if you're building parser programs or modeling lexical storage in a neural net or whatever, Chomsky 1995 doesn't give you any useful tools that Chomsky 1986 or even Chomsky 1965 didn't. So there's really no reason to keep up to date. There are also some sociological factors not worth getting into here. Meanwhile, some of the alternative frameworks have gone out of their way to provide tools to the neighboring fields, but they don't expect you to first learn all of MP so you can unlearn it to pick up HPSG.

8. For example, you need to justify why you're not using the state of the art theory, or why you're using a minority theory instead of the mainstream one, having a good argument against P&P in terms of the UG it implies being impossible can get your manager/professor/committee/whatever off your back…

9. Of course in a few decades, when all of the relevant fields have caught up to the point where they can join up, then the question of "OK, exactly what should we consider part of UG (or 'Language Facility, Narrow', or whatever)" will be a good question. It may even have a good answer. But we're not there yet.

  • 1
    Thanks for a very sensible discussion. I think the latter day idea about UG misses a key part of scientific theorizing, which is that the theories have to be true (not just make sense or explain things).
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 8:59
  • Very interesting, and great presentation! I wonder what "just recursion" means. Fodor and Dretske promoted the idea that language needs to be compositional to be learnable. Is UG the hypothesis that compositionality is physically/genetically implemented in the brain? Brandom objected that language can be recursively learnable without being compositional, through a hierarchy of non-compositional (or partly compositional) "wholes" of increasing complexity. Or is it just about reproducing the phenomenology, whatever the implementation is?
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 10:14
  • @GregLee This is why I think the alternative generative-grammar (and nearish-to-generative) theorists just stopped talking about UG for a while. You can say "My theory fits common sense about what UG could actually provide", a Chomskyist says "Nuh uh, my common sense says P&P fits better", and then… where do you go from there? If you start with "My theory gives an algorithm that can (efficiently) process 93% of the sentences in this corpus", and they can't counter with something similarly objective… well, that's how science is supposed to work.
    – abarnert
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 10:23
  • @GregLee That being said, some of them have been going back to UG arguments (couched as arguments about evolution or processing, but not objective enough to be falsified). But they're still nowhere near the primary arguments. For example, Peter Culicover goes a few chapters into his book before even mentioning what his theory expects of UG and why it's more plausible than P&P or MP, and then doesn't harp on it further.
    – abarnert
    Commented Jan 22, 2019 at 10:26
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    @Conifold If you really want to get into this, you should look for (at least) the sequence of exchanges between HCF vs. Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff. P&J cover all of the obvious objections that you're thinking of, and there's one more round of direct back-and-forth that clarifies things further.
    – abarnert
    Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 1:41

There's some nice sources on it in the functionalist camp. Can't find it now, but I think Haspelmath or Croft phrased UG as "whatever is left when we look at all the languages", which in essence is 1) not much, 2) probably not very informative. Typologists have been arguing against universal categories to be used for cross-linguistic comparisons even.

Few nice quotes to get you started:

Assuming that it was important to discover generalizations which were valid for all languages, would not such statements be few in number and on the whole quite banal? Examples would be that languages had nouns and verbs (although some linguists denied even that) or that all languages had sound systems and distinguished between phonetic vowels and consonants. (Greenberg 1986, p. 14) via Evans & Levinson, 2012

The claims of Universal Grammar, we argue here, are either empirically false, unfalsifiable, or misleading in that they refer to tendencies rather than strict universals. Structural differences should instead be accepted for what they are, and integrated into a new approach to language and cognition that places diversity at centre stage. (Evans & Levinson, 2012)

Hundreds of implicational universals have already been discovered, and more are discovered every time a typologist investigates a new area of grammar. The existence of so many implicational universals requires a rethinking of the nature of Universal Grammar, which is usually thought of as a set of unrestricted universals. The part of Universal Grammar that consists of unrestricted universals specifying ways in which all languages are identical captures only a very small portion of what is universal about language. It misses most of what is universal about language beyond the basic design features. (Croft, 2004)

There could be a small set of innate grammatical categories and relations ("substantive universals") from which languages may choose, and a simple grammatical architecture linking the various components of the grammar ("formal universals"). It would be the linguists' task to determine the substantive and formal universals (in other words, universal grammar), and this would constitute the framework. Since it is innate, all languages must be describable within this framework. If this picture corresponded to the reality of languages, linguists' life would be easy and description could be based on a framework. However, all practicing linguists know that things are vastly more complicated: If a universal grammar, as envisaged in the Chomskyan tradition, exists, we are still very far from knowing what it is like. Almost every language presents us with new puzzles, with new categories and structures that do not fit into our frameworks. The idea that a single uniform framework could be designed that naturally accommodates all languages is totally utopian at the moment. So instead of fitting a language into the Procrustean bed of an existing framework, we should liberate ourselves from the frameworks and describe languages in their own terms. (Haspelmath, 2008)

Thinking about the basic design constraints can prove interesting on its own though. Keep in mind that there is contention on Levinsons' perhaps a bit harsh statement.

The talk about innate constraints is under heavy pressure too, modelling work indicates that strong constraints are not really necessary or not very probable to evolve even.

To answer the question 2 though, no, there is really no agreed upon standard at the moment and way too many "linguistics"-s to go around. Good luck making sense of it!

  • Croft, W. (2002). Typology and universals. Cambridge University Press.

  • Evans, N., & Levinson, S. C. (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and brain sciences, 32(05), 429-448.

  • Greenberg, J. ed. (1986) On being a linguistic anthropologist. Annual Review of Anthropology 15:1–24. [aNE]

  • Haspelmath, M. (2008). Framework-free grammatical theory. To appear in: Heine.

  • Very interesting! I'll check out the references to understand more.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 1:41

The fundamental problem of the question is that it leaves undefined what "a linguist" is, and there is no common-sense or operational definition that could be applied to conducting a survey, or making an educated guess. If you were to specifically limit the question to professional linguists (post-PhD, paid to do linguistics) working on synchronic grammatical theory (which is what UG is "about"), you'd get a vastly different answer, compared to looking at anybody who self-declares that they are linguists. Since you're asking a sociological question, you ought to spell out the subject pool in some way. A corollary problem with the question is that it obviously can only be answered given a well-administered attitude survey – which I claim is a logical impossibility – and there has never even been a lousy survey on the subject. The only scientific basis that anyone has for answering this either in the affirmative or negative is some unjustified assumptions about the relationship between what you see published, and what people believe. Otherwise, you're just gonna get people's personal beliefs about UG.

If you are interested in the intellectual content of the theory, as opposed to the feelings of an undefined crowd, I suggest trying to understand what the claim actually is (which means you will find that there are multiple claims). For example, there is a wide misunderstanding of the term "generative" which equates it with "Whatever Chomsky is doing now in syntax", and likewise "UG" is "Whatever is Chomsky's current syntactic metatheory".

The fundamental claim of UG is that there exists some set of cognitive tools which are specific to grammatical computations, and that these are a feature of human psychology. There are three attitudes to this premise: acceptance, rejection, and agnosticism. Based on some decades of interaction with theoretical linguists in the US, I conclude that acceptance was predominant into the 70's, and currently, it could be a tie between acceptance and agnosticism. I also think that the concept of substantive universals has taken the strongest hit, which is to say that the idea of a rich set of universal elements such as syntactic parameters and whatever kind of features is, quite possibly, on its last few years of life. But at any rate, you can't meaningfully ask questions about "the theory of UG", any more than you can meaningfully ask questions about "the theory of epistemology". You can meaningfully ask a specific question, such as whether most linguists believe, disbelieve, or don't know, whether "movement" is a possible syntactic operation.

  • Asking whether movement is a possible syntactic operation is a neat idea. I'd say no. I'm not sure that bears on the truth of UG.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 21:11
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    I utterly reject any theory holds that truth is determined by majority opinion. In this case, I am extremely skeptical about the possibility of determining the majority opinion on that one very specific question, and positive that a question about "believing in UG" is so vague as to deserve closing.
    – user6726
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 21:32
  • Well, I didn't propose conducting a survey and counting heads about movement. I just think it's something interesting that I have an opinion about.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 21:45
  • You are asking too much of me. "Majority of linguists accept UG" is Wikipedia's assertion given without specifying the terms, and I did mention several definitions of UG that I saw. I also used distancing " ", and "in some sense" to let people who know more interpret it better. Usually when there is a consensus in a discipline on something one can tell without a formal survey, so I more or less expected something like that. But all answers, even yours, indicate that on UG there isn't.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 1:38
  • @Conifold, "all answers, even yours, indicate that on UG there isn't", this is probably the one statement that there is a concensus on in linguistics.
    – user6726
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 1:58

The foundational argument for UG is robust and has not been refuted despite claims to the contrary. The schools of linguistics mentioned above, e.g. functional, discourse studies, are irrelevant to the UG program, i.e. describing I-language to account for the child's amazing feat of first language acquisition. Chomsky makes this point abundantly clear on page 2 of Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Authors such as Tomasselo and Evert who purport to refute UG fail to be convincing. Evertt for example claims he found a language that does not have the property of recursion, but there are few other linguists who can verify his claim. As far as the technical apparatus of UG, Chomsky did not insist on it; hence, the gradual evolution from the Standard theory, to GB, to the MP. The basic arguments of Plato's problem, poverty of stimulus, and degeneracy of input are rational arguments that can be confirmed by the evidence of any parent having raised a child.

  • 5
    I propose that your answer, which is sensible, is nevertheless not appropriate to the question asked: you fail to address the sociology of the field. The question is not about what is true, it is about what the field believes. The question that you answer was not asked here.
    – user6726
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 6:12

I don't find the universal grammar "theory" at all interesting. It's totally unrelated to the scientific aspects of linguistic theory, imo. It's content is polemic and political.

It's not totally unlike the climate change controversy. It's seductive for non-specialists, because it makes sense to everyone, everyone can have an opinion about it (and mostly everyone does), and everyone can argue about it without knowing anything about linguistics (resp., climatology).

It's boring.

  • 2
    As far as I know, there is a consensus on climate change among experts. The controversy mostly comes from people whose opinions are poorly informed. The same goes for evolution in biology. Even meteorologists that find climate change boring mostly do not question that the theory is scientifically sound. But you seem to say the opposite about UG, is that the consensus? What are the "scientific aspects of linguistic theory", any reference a lay person like me can read?
    – Conifold
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 23:46
  • @Conifold, I don't know what the consensus is, nor do I care. I would like to find true theories about language, not one which is most popular. We don't do science by conducting opinion polls. --- As to the scientific aspects of linguistic theory, I have some ideas about that, and about how we have advanced, but I'd be surprised to find anyone who agreed with me in detail. At any rate, I can't cram that into this comment. Why don't you ask about that separately?
    – Greg Lee
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 0:11
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    This doesn't answer the question.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 4:51
  • Just curious, what exactly do you mean by "a true theory?"
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 3:33
  • @AlexB., I mean to exclude the casual everyday use of "theory" to mean no more than "opinion". Other than that, I had no exact sense in mind.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jan 24, 2019 at 4:00

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