I've recently came across Chomsky's universal grammar, and I'm very much wondering about one specific question. I was trying to find references, however didn't find any explanation in the huge amount of literature on that topic.

My question: Chomsky's theory suggests that linguistic ability manifests itself without being taught. The only way I can imagine that the information is directly encoded in our DNA. The universal grammar suggestions complex constructions such as recursion. As far as I know, evolution happens at very large time-scales - so within a few 100.000 of years, the information about complex linguistical structures is very unlikely to be encoded into the DNA.

  • Does that conclude that the language of our ancestors 1 million years ago already had the capability to construct recursion?
  • Is the information about language encoded in some other way (which way?)?
  • What else solves my apparend misunderstanding?

Thanks alot (from an obvious non-linguist ;-) )

  • 4
    Luckily, nobody takes Chomsky's universal grammar as a biological theory seriously anymore. It was, as you suggest, rather confused about how biology works. See the works of (among others) Dan Everett or Christina Behme.
    – jlawler
    Nov 26, 2014 at 1:02
  • 1
    As with birdsong, I don't think anyone really knows much about how we know innate things ;)
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 26, 2014 at 11:14
  • 1
    From one non-linguist to another: the ability to use language is incontestably encoded in the human genome. Empirically speaking, you don't see a lot of language-users running around the planet who aren't also bipedal primates with hair but no fur, etc. Whether specific features of grammar are universal and founded in biology, such as recursion, is a different question. Having said that, if you've ever written a little programming language, you'll know that recursion, per se, isn't a very complex feature to support (in fact, it's inevitable in any non-trivial language).
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 26, 2014 at 14:22
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    Sure, tail recursion is equivalent to looping, but full-bore recursion leads to LISP and other languages which may be considered trivial by some but beautiful by others. Whatever their merits, they're not at all trivial to implement or use. And there are human languages without recursion. Chomsky's theories proceed from the assumption that there hasta be a builtin codebook because none of these geniuses can figure out how a kid could build one. The same question arises with everything the kid learns, however.
    – jlawler
    Nov 26, 2014 at 17:05
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    I don't really care very deeply about this stuff, but relevant to the question - the idea that there's anything really complex about recursion seems wrong to me. Recursion follows as a natural consequence of an incredibly simple structure building operation - set-formation. A grammar without recursion would actually be more complex, as you'd have to stipulate that it isn't possible.
    – P Elliott
    Nov 27, 2014 at 15:53

2 Answers 2


People working on language evolution in the intellectual tradition you describe believe the following things (I limit myself to give an accurate rendering of their positions; as none of the opinons described below are part of the scientific consensus).

1) Language is a core human faculty, fundamentally different from animal communication; which they take to be an analogous organ but not a homologous one. The genetic encoding of this faculty is very simple.

2) This core human faculty evolved rapidly, probably only once in the Homo Sapiens evolutionary history at least 20,000 years ago but probably at most 100,000 years (this they believe because on the one hand the ability to learn any human language shows no genetic diversity between populations which separated 20,000 years ago at least and on the other hand there are few indisputable archeological artifacts with a symbolic meaning dating from before 100,000 years ago).

3) Crucially for your question, syntactic structures are fundamentally very simple, in fact as simple as they could be, and exhibit (at a fundamental level) only very small and trivial cross-linguistic variations.

For them, these three simultaneous opinons are mutually reinforcing and present a coherent picture. For instance, if it is true that 2) the human faculty for language evolved once and relatively recently, then its genetic encoding is in all likelihood very simple, so 1), and so should be its expression 3). Conversely, if you believe 3), then the question of why all human languages should be fundamentally the same naturally arises, and the null-hypothesis would be a combination of 1) and 2). I should say that they also firmly believe that

4) Evolution of the human capability of language is for the moment way to hard a problem, as is already in fact evolution of immensely simpler cognitive faculties.

To answer your precise questions.

[Do they] conclude that the language of our ancestors 1 million years ago already had the capability to construct recursion? Absolutely not. They very strongly believe that our closest ancestors at that time scale lacked the current human capability of language. The time scale they propose is an order of magnitude lower.

Is the information about language encoded in some other way (which way?)? Much simpler biological phenomena show a delicate interplay between genetic, epigenetic and environmental factors, so the null-hypothesis is that the same should be the case for the language faculty. In view of 4), they would probably say that this question is (way) too hard for current science.

What else solves my apparend misunderstanding? Actually, your reasoning was quite parallel to theirs, but you took as a premise the fact that linguistics structure are complex (to quote from your question with my emphasis "so within a few 100.000 of years, the information about complex linguistic[s] structures is very unlikely to be encoded into the DNA"). They would agree with your assessment if they considered linguistics structures to be complex, but they believe they are simple.




Question one:We don't know negative or positive answer to your question. But we know human being or our ancestors (we are not sure the exact time,and it is not important,I think)have the capability to do recursion or computation, as you know, computability is equivalent to recursion according to Soare's definition.

But we don't know the capability to compute is inherited (innate) or constructed(learned). They are different notions.

Question two: What do you mean by "the information about language", the rewritting rules? If it is grammar or rewriting rules, it is really depend on the answer to the first question. It may be encoded in same ways as any other generic information, if we can learn language, otherwise, no other way can be used to encode the information than DNA or the like.

Question three:combining Gold theorem (1967) and the poverty of stimulus of language available to baby , we have to conclude that the mechanics of language is innated. But the main problem of the conclusion is whether Gold theorem's setting is consistent with the one of language learning, and whether the poverty of stimulus of language available to baby can be proved.

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