Boroditsky writes: Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages essentially, that languages dont really differ from one another in significant ways. And because languages didnt differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking. // The search for linguistic universals yielded interesting data on languages, but after decades of work, not a single proposed universal has withstood scrutiny. This not only misrepresents universal grammar and its investigation but also misconceives which aspects of language Chomsky et als versus Boroditskys et als research relates to.
Chomskys proposal is that languages do not significantly differ from each other in terms of narrow syntax, that is, in terms of syntactic algorithms and the set of primitives over which those algorithms operate. The kinds of universals that arise with this approach are statements like:
- All branching is maximally binary.
- Extraction is only possible from phase edges.
- Minimality of attraction is relativized to particular features.
- Any language with head-internal relative clauses permits null subjects.
- Any language that is verb-initial has construct states.
- All languages have pronouns.
That said, although universal grammar does not require superficial universals, it should be emphasised that universals derived from the nature of the primitives over which syntax operates (rather than from the syntactic algorithms themselves) remain in good health after decades of research: feature systems with a dual still differentiate singular from plural, and those with a trial still differentiate singular, plural and dual; feature systems with a three-way person contrast still conflate first inclusive with first exclusive, not with second person; and there is still no choric-hearer or choric-speaker feature system. So, universal grammar doesnt need superficial universals, but it has them anyway.
Yet, even if Boroditskys motivational critique of Chomsky is wrong, that hardly means her work is without motivation. The domains of study of the two approaches are substantially without overlap. Consider some of Boroditskys examples.
- English, Hebrew and Pormpuraaw speakers may arrange pictures differently to reflect chronological sequence, but this tell us nothing about how narrow syntax works, because representation of chronological sequence has nothing to do with binary branching, extraction, etc. The irrelevance of this data is underlined by Boroditskys own observation that the Hebrew versus English orderings reflect the directions in which the two languages are written: writing systems are means of representing the output of universal grammar, parametrized to a given language, after it has passed through the morphological, phonological and phonetic systems; they are very distant from the study of universal grammar itself.
- Lexical facts—such as whether Russian speakers, who lack a cover term for sky blue and navy blue, are more attuned to different shades of these colours than are English speakers to whom they are both blue—are also irrelevant to how syntax may construct long-distance dependencies or whether syntactic branching is binary. Much variation in the lexicon fails to impact on syntax: elks are nothing like elephants, but one struggles to find syntactic ramifications of this fact.
- English and Japanese both have constructions that identify and ignore agency, but their different rates of usage represents a sociological fact about language usage, not anything to do with differences in the narrow syntax. If your society generally expects you to impute agency when speaking whatever language it uses, then, it turns out that you are more attuned to agency. This is not overly surprising: when my lifestyle includes a lot of violin playing, my intolerance for others off-key playing increases. Speaking English is part of my lifestyle, so why should the set of distinctions that being a member of an English-speaking society routinely makes me make not be just like having perfect pitch? The propensity of English speakers to identify causes reflects a sociolinguistic fact, not something that universal grammar is concerned with.
It is irritating that such errors of logic and such misrepresentations of generative linguistics should have been made in so public a forum as the Wall Street Journal. Whats more worrying to me, however, is the persistent gap in understanding by other cognitive scientists as to what universal grammar is about, what evidence could falsify it, and how other research enterprises may pertain to language and yet be orthogonal to it.