Phonology (Modern Linguistics)

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For the former, as early as the late 17th century, culminating in the Port Royal grammar of , linguists and philologists began to postulate a universal base for human languages.

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Such researchers made the case that all languages likely trace back to some original blueprint. Then in the latter half of the 20th century, Noam Chomsky took on the challenge of understanding and investigating this blueprint, by looking to biology as the source of grammar, proposing that all languages are simply local manifestations of a biologically transmitted Universal Grammar.

Other researchers believe that grammar is in essence a local phenomenon. This is the alternative I explore in what follows.

In this view language and its components grammar, phonetics, phonology, semantics, and so on are perceived as local, cultural-communicational outputs, with little or no evidence for a genetic blueprint for grammar. I largely approach this issue negatively in what follows, arguing against UG proposals, from the perspective of Everett a ; see also Everett, accepted, in progress, among others. I argue that there is no evidence for UG, not even from the most articulated grammatical proposals in its favor to date, Hauser et al.

This is by no means a novel position, though it is a path less followed. It represents in fact the traditional position of the most influential North American linguists of the early 20th century, Franz Boas and Edward Sapir.

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Much of what follows draws heavily from arguments and texts provided in Everett accepted , updated where appropriate. If so, then languages are essentially the same and only superficially different. Yet an often overlooked, genetic criticism of UG, raised by Lieberman , 56ff is that UG predicts the opposite of what it is claimed to predict. UG was proposed to account for a hypothesized never demonstrated acquisitional homogeneity, which children across cultures are said to achieve for their native languages, as well as for the fact that all languages are built on the same grammatical plan, a plan located somehow, somewhere in the human genome in a way that has never been specified in the literature.

As Lieberman points out, however, if language were actually specified on the genes, it would be subject to mutations, presenting a non-trivial problem for UG. Such a mutation might subsequently spread through a population via genetic drift or some such, though that is not crucial. We need only to find a single individual that cannot learn English-like or Portuguese-like languages, with no other cognitive deficit — simplifying if we assume that pro-drop is a genetically based parameter.

This is a valid question to put to any nativist theory. In fact, rather than view this negatively, it can be seen positively — a strong prediction by the theory of UG. But all are subject to mutations. There are many genetic disorders of the body and brain e. Such disorders are usually fatal or produce reductions in offspring and thus are not selected for. Sickle-cell anemia, for example, shortens the lives of carriers relative to healthy people not good but lengthens it relative to people stricken with malaria good. It spreads through a population in spite of the unpleasant end it brings to its hosts, because it nonetheless provides local advantages.

There are indeed mutations responsible for people being born with different genes for body shape, etc. In other words, and quite ironically, if grammar is carried on the genes, then the strongest evidence for UG would be the discovery that not all people may be able to learn every language. There are claims for some mutations in language by proponents of UG, but these are not the same.

For example, consider the following quote from Reboul , p. In fact, recent findings see Dediu and Ladd, ; Nettle, suggest that such mutations exist. Dediu and Ladd established a strong correlation between geographically dispersed tone-languages and allele frequencies for two genes ASPM and Microcephalin in the populations speaking those languages as compared with speakers of non-tonal languages.

The interpretation is that these specific alleles would facilitate the learning of tonal languages through better acoustic discrimination. The idea that language I-language, grammar, etc.

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This is not an argument — it is an entailment of nativist theory. And cultures, as Everett a points out, provide one source of selectional pressure. What counts against nativism of the Chomskyan variety is the clear failure of this prediction. The claim that Reboul is supposed to be criticizing is the idea that one population could, through selection of some genetic features of language, be unable to learn the language of another population. The findings of Dediu and Ladd, if true and I doubt it , far from falsifying my claim support it.

Their results apparently show that some populations speaking tonal languages become better at perceiving tones than others. But this contradicts my claim not at all, because all languages use pitch. Therefore, this enhancement would benefit all speakers of all populations and could not become the basis for one population losing the ability to learn the language of another. However, this gets us back to our original question. Unfortunately, the most serious problem for UG is that as the years have passed, it has reached the point that it is vague and it makes no predictions about language proper — it is disconnected from empirical content.

The first is that all grammatical structures are binary branching, since Merge can only produce such outputs. The second is that Merge requires that all syntactic structures be endocentric i. My claim is that the absence of recursion is the result of cultural values, rather than a culture-independent grammar. One of the most common objections raised to this criticism of Chomskyan theory is that the superficial appearance of lacking recursion in a language does not necessarily mean that the language could not be derived from a recursive process like Merge.

There are ways to rescue the theory. And of course this is correct.

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From this latter observation, some conclude that the misguided in their perspective suggestion that Piraha represents a problem for Chomskyan theory is due to the failure distinguish between Greenbergian vs. Chomskyan universals. Greenbergian universals Greenberg, have always referred to linguistic phenomena that can actually be observed and thus easily falsified.


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These claims are tightly constrained empirically. On the other hand, Chomskyan universals are quite different because they are never directly observable.

Formal universals are grammatical principles or processes or constraints common to all languages — that is, supposedly following from UG — at some level of abstraction from the observable data. These abstractions can only be appreciated, it seems, by the appropriate theoretician. Unfortunately, this makes formal universals difficult to falsify because they can always be saved by abstract, unseen principles or entities, e.

In this sense, the Chomskyan claim regarding recursion Hauser et al. A language without Merge would lack utterances of more than two words according to Chomsky by this strange reasoning, all utterances greater than three words would support Chomsky, a rather low threshold of evidence. So long as we can say that a sentence is the output of Merge, limited in some way, then it was produced recursively, even though superficially non-recursive.

The Greenbergian perspective, on the other hand, would be that either you see recursion or it is not there.

Both positions are completely rational and sensible. But, as I have said, the Chomskyan view renders the specific claim that all languages are formed by Merge untestable. On the other hand, a linguist could add ancillary hypotheses to their accounts in order to save Merge, entailing two consequences: i Merge loses all predictive power and ii Merge provides a longer, hence less parsimonious, account of the same structures Everett, b.

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Nativism, again, is the idea not only that we are innately capable of language everyone surely believes this , but that our capabilities are specific to particular domains, e. Everett a , argues that they show nothing of the sort. Stepping back a bit, it is clear that all creatures have instincts or innate capacities.

Even so, the evidence presented for such capacities is often weak. This is particularly true for claims on cognitive nativism. In fact, if Everett accepted is correct, then higher-level cognitive capacities in Homo sapiens are the least likely places to find instincts. If one is claiming that a cognitive characteristic is innate or an instinct, they must do the following at a minimum:.

Keep genetics and epigenetics constraints — embryological, environmental — on the strength, absence, or presence of genetic effects separate. Yet because almost no claim for instincts gets beyond 1, as Blumberg , p. What does this mean?