I've heard that Noam Chomsky was a great man because of his work on "universal grammar", but all the resources I've been able to find about it are very general and I can't find out exactly what it is.

Is there anything tangible about universal grammar that can be understood? Like some examples or a detailed explanation of the universal grammar?

All of the information I can find about it seems to be so wishy-washy and I wonder whether it's only pseudoscience.

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    It's hard to know how to answer this without knowing how much you know about linguistics. Chomsky's claim (which is still hotly disputed) is that children do not hear a rich enough sample of language to be able to deduce the whole grammar of the language(s) they hear; so he concludes that they must have an innate (though general) grammar, to which they match the speech they hear, and so learn both the words. and the specific "parameters" on the universal rules that together will constitute the language(s) they hear and learn.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 18:04
  • In someway, UG is a tautology; there is something the same about all human languages just because we call them one thing, human languages. But part of Chomsky's program relies on observations of human anatomy, both airway and brain, that other species do not.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 23:15
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    A linguistics prof once showed my class a discussion board post where someone said, "Chomsky has been holding the field of linguistics back for decades. What's so great about universal grammar? The only REAL way to learn a language is through immersion!!" However we define UG, it's not what that guy thought it was. Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 2:30
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    The only two answers to this question are from people who also voted to close the question, so that no one else can offer their own answers. If they really thought the question was "too broad" to be a suitable question, why did they answer it?
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 14:54
  • @GregLee I didn’t know you couldn’t write answers to questions that are put on hold. Voted to reopen it so you could share your view on UG. I still believe the question is too broad though.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 13:06

2 Answers 2


Since your question is phrased so broadly and there are tons of research on Universal Grammar (UG), I have to write a likewise broad answer, which is nevertheless technically correct:

Universal Grammar is the genetic component of the language faculty (Berwick and Chomsky 2016).

Bernard Comrie (as early as Comrie 1989) noted that this research paradigm - whatever it is called now (is it the Minimalist Program or biolinguistics?) - is aprioristic, which is legitimate. cf. "Conversely, one can formulate a theory of UG as an abstract Platonic object with no claim whatsoever regarding any physical instantiation it may have" (Roberts 2017).

However, it means it could be the case it is not "potentially disconfirmable" (Comrie 1989: 5). Because of its potential unfalsifiability, some linguists (nomina sunt odiosa) even went as far as to say that the theory of UG is not scientific.

Linguists will never agree on whether there is UG or not (for different reasons), but the generative paradigm is not pseudoscience. Even though I am no longer actively involved in generative research anymore nor do I find it particularly enthralling, as it used to be in the good olde days, I still believe Noam Chomsky is a great man and the most formidable linguist of our time.

If you need to understand the basics of Universal Grammar and if you don't have any formal training in linguistics, I would recommend something written for the general audience, perhaps "The Infinite Gift" by Charles Yang or "The Atoms Of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules Of Grammar" by Mark Baker. Slightly more technical and better written (imho) is Chapter 4 "Universal Grammar" in "Foundations of Language" by Ray Jackendoff.

Then you might want to read Roberts 2017 (open access!) in The Oxford Handbook of Universal Grammar. I find this part very important and illuminating:

"Like any bold and interesting idea, UG has its critics. In recent years, some have been extremely vocal [...]. Again this is as it should be: all good ideas can and should be challenged. Even if these critics turn out to be correct (although I think it is fair to say that reports of the ‘death of UG’ are somewhat premature), at the very minimum the idea has served as an outstandingly useful heuristic for finding out more about language. But one is naturally led to wonder whether the idea can really be wholly wrong if it is able to yield so much, aside from any intrinsic explanatory value it may have."

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    'useful heuristic for finding out more about language' - I think this is the most useful comment here. The UG paradigm, though its assumptions and methods are dated, has been successful as uncovering certain facts of English syntax that would have otherwise been overlooked, like island constraints. Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 7:21
  • @WavesWashSands what do you mean by saying its methods are dated?
    – Alex B.
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 23:32
  • Wait...did you vote to close this question? That's pretty crazy. You're basically answering and then telling others not to answer. That's really messed up.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 19:40
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    @Mitch I’ve already explained it, I was unaware of that rule. Let’s be nice though.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 23:31

In my opinion, the answer is "no", that is, you can't be convincingly tangible and say "This is UG". The essential and most widely-accepted idea of UG is that humans have non-learned (genetically-given) abilities which are specific to language. This is as opposed to the theory that all aspects of language are learned (on the basis of general cognitive abilities). The position that Chomsky was arguing against held that there are no special cognitive differences at all between humans and rats, so Chomsky's alternative was pretty persuasive in that context. The argument for UG is much tougher nowadays, given that it is generally recognized that rats and humans learn differently. I should also mention that many people decline to accept the idea of UG simply because they don't consider the evidence of universality and genetic givenness to be sufficiently established.

At certain points in the history of studying the matter, it was held that there are some universal concepts like "Noun", "Verb", "Adjective", "Sentence"; it was once held that there is a set of 42 universally-available properties that characterize language sounds. These specific claims seem to have fallen by the wayside over the past 60 years. There used to be a specific theory of what a "rule of language" could look like, both in syntax and phonology. Some time around the end of the 60's (Jlawler and Greg Lee probably have a better understanding of people's views at the time), people started to give up on Aspects model formalization of rules, though in phonology, the theory of rules survived with a few revisions into the mid-70's.

I don't think there is much more that can be said about UG as a general concept. However, a lot more can be said about specific areas of grammar, and certain time periods. If you narrow it down to, for example, "What is UG, according to the Minimalist theory of syntax?", or "What is UG, in 1977 version Autosegmental Phonology?".

  • Wait...did you vote to close this question? That's pretty crazy. You're basically answering and then telling others not to answer. That's really messed up.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 19:40

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