I haven’t written anything for a while since I’ve been so busy recently (been working a lot on the typology of relative clauses - perhaps I’ll post something about that soon). This evening I watched an interview (on YouTube) from the late 1970’s (1977, I think) with Chomsky. The interview is from a series called “Men of Ideas” produced by the BBC.
It’s a great interview - stimulating and perceptive questions and, of course, stimulating and perceptive answers! Many things caught my attention, one of which being that Chomsky spoke of two factors playing a role in language design, namely the biological endowment (i.e. Universal Grammar (UG) - the species- and domain-specific cognitive ‘organ’ dealing with language) and linguistic experience (i.e. the primary linguistic data from which we acquire our native language(s)). The idea was that all humans are born with a capacity for language, i.e. UG is innate in humans, provided by our genetic makeup. The data we encounter as children is so scant and degenerate (full of false starts, sentence fragments, etc.) that it would be virtually impossible to acquire a grammar in the short amount of time that it takes any normal child to do so the world over…unless we came pre-programmed for such a task. The idea was that UG was this pre-programming. UG was thought to be richly specified with linguistic principles (all genetically encoded) that would help children in the task of language acquisition by severely constraining the possible hypotheses that any child would postulate when acquiring a grammar to generate the data the child was exposed to. That was then.
Nowadays, Chomsky speaks not of two factors, but of three factors of language design. UG and the primary linguistic data are the first and second factors respectively. The third factor is made up of general principles of data analysis and efficient computation. The idea is that children can bring these domain-general (i.e. not exclusively related to language) tools to language acquisition. The third factor allows the first factor, i.e. UG, to be made much smaller. In other words, UG is no longer thought to be as richly specified as it once was. In fact, the aim is to make UG as small as possible. This is desirable for a number of reasons, but a particularly pertinent reason concerns the evolution of language, i.e. the evolution of the capacity for language in humans. As an ‘organ’ of the mind, UG is a biological entity, and as such it must have evolved (though not necessarily through direct selection, as Chomsky points out in the interview!). Given that chimpanzees do not have UG, UG must have evolved some time in the last 5-7 million years or so. It is therefore unlikely that something as rich and complex as UG as it was originally conceived could have evolved in such an evolutionarily short space of time. The third factors, however, need not be specific to language, nor do they need to be specific to humans. Therefore, it is conceptually desirable if we can explain the design of language in terms of third factors. This is, in fact, viewed as the only source of principled explanation in Chomskyan syntax nowadays.
Importantly, although UG is far smaller than it was and may only consist of very few things (a recursive structure building operation at the very least), it is nevertheless still thought to exist. The UG hypothesis in its modern incarnation is thus still very different from approaches which deny the existence of UG altogether.
Anyway, if you’re interested, I suggest reading Chomsky’s (2005) paper:
Chomsky, N. (2005). Three Factors in Language Design. Linguistic Inquiry 36: 1, 1-22.