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We need Simpler Syntax, but we can do without a Grammar of the Gaps

Recently I picked up Simpler Syntax in the library. It is a good read on a very complex topic, and I’m afraid that in this posting I am not going to do justice to the full breadth of the book. These are just some doubts that crept up while reading it.

Simpler Syntax, as far as I can see, combines the goods of various constructional approaches to language with a Universal Grammar (UG). But in the light of the rise of increasingly sophisticated constructionalist-functionalist approaches to grammar1, one wonders what would be the job of such a Universal Grammar. To this, Culicover and Jackendoff answer: ‘We conceive of UG as pre-specifying the highest, most general layer of the hierarchy. (…) Thus UG guides, but does not determine the course of language acquisition.’ (2005:40).

For Culicover & Jackendoff UG is a special piece of innate cognitive machinery guiding the course of language acquisition. It is an open question whether something like this is at all necessary in the construction-grammar type theories they happily adopt. I was a bit surprised that Culicover & Jackendoff’s argument for UG crucially hinges on the following assumption:

Relatively ‘core’ phenomena such as (30)2 are quite direct specializations of UG, and represent degrees of abstraction and generality that probably could not be achieved without the principles of UG as ‘goals’ or ‘attractors’ for the process of generalization. (p. 30)

So UG, they say, is there mainly to provide necessary ‘attractors’ for processes of generalization/abstraction. The question then becomes: what is the evidence that these degrees of abstraction and generality could not be achieved without UG? Isn’t there a chance that we are just chasing an epiphenomenon of ‘constructed language’ (Tomasello) — in other words, is it really true that we cannot come up with convincing explanations for the degrees of abstraction and generality achieved? Rather than a priori assuming something like that, it seems more profitable to try and see how far we can get without resorting to some language-specific system of principles that is hardwired into our constitution.

Grammar of the Gaps

Let’s switch gears to look at a broader issue. I’m in no way qualified to comment on the specifics of the development of the UG hypothesis, but perhaps I can be permitted to make a tongue-in-cheek observation. Looking over the last decades, it seems UG has become distinctly less concrete. Most of the principles brought forward in the Principles and Parameters paradigm did not hold up to cross-linguistic scrutiny, and the conclusion has been that the innate principles we’re looking for must be something less concrete, more abstract. In the progressive finetuning of generativist’s conceptions of these universal principles, it seems there has been a gradual move to ever more abstract territories. One recent version even culminates in the hypothesis that recursion may be the only thing in the faculty of language in the narrow sense (FLN).3

To an onlooker like me, this development bears uncanny similarities to another historical development in the ideosphere, namely the gradual retreat of God to the fringes of human understanding in the face of Enlightenment and Modernism. For those who believed that God was behind everything we didn’t understand about nature, the influence and explanatory power of the concept shrank with each scientific advance.

There is an old term for the ever more abstract conception of God that was the result of these developments: God of the Gaps. Let us for the moment call its analogue in linguistics the Grammar of the Gaps. The Grammar of the Gaps would be a theory which assigns the gaps in our knowledge of language acquisition to an innate LAD, or the gaps in our knowledge of generalization and abstraction processes to an innate UG. It is, needless to say, a hypothetical construct; and I merely use this tongue-in-cheek term to point out a direction which any empirical theory of linguistics might want to avoid.

But is it grammar?

Fortunately there is a good chance for the UG/constructionalist debate to be resolved along empirical lines. And that is how the issue should be framed: as an open, empirical question as regards the cognitive underpinnings of language. Since descriptive adequacy and psychological reality are desiderata (hopefully) shared by both camps, we may even expect the two approaches to be able to find some common ground. On that note, consider the following.

Last week, during the afternoon session of the Nijmegen Lectures, discussant Jan-Wouter Zwart posed the following question to Adele Goldberg, the main speaker:

Is it conceivable that underlying the structure of constructions are abstract principles of a simple kind, rooted in universal properties of human cognition? Could there be principles that are so basic that they could be viewed as macro-constructions without which no construction could exist?4

Someone in the audience jocularly remarked that Zwart had made an error: instead of ‘human cognition’, it should’ve said ‘the language faculty’.5 It was, of course, a deliberate choice of words; Zwart’s stated purpose was to identify some common ground in the generativist and constructional approaches. Later on he told me that he was satisfied with Goldberg’s affirmative answer to at least the first part of the question quoted above.

So what exactly is the common ground here? It consists of the following: that there may be ‘abstract principles of a simple kind, rooted in universal properties of human cognition’. Of course, the statement is sufficiently general to engender agreement from just about everyone.6 It follows that if we water down UG to this, that is, to the point of merely providing some necessary prestructuring of our mental abilities, the problem is gone, the debate resolved, and the gap bridged. The question of course is: could something like that still be called Universal Grammar? I’d say no. UG would have slipped through our fingers after all.


  • Culicover, Peter W., and Ray Jackendoff. 2005. Simpler Syntax. Oxford University Press.
  • Fitch, W. Tecumseh, M. D. Hauser, and Noam Chomsky. 2005. The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications. Cognition 97, no. 2: 179-210.
  • Goldberg, Adele E. 1995. Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure. University Of Chicago Press.
  • Goldberg, Adele E. 2006. Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language. Oxford University Press.
  • Hauser, Marc D., Noam Chomsky, and W. Tecumseh Fitch. 2002. The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve. Science 298, 1569-1579.
  • Langacker, Ronald W. 1991. Concept, Image, and Symbol: The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Levinson, Stephen C. 2006. Introduction: The evolution of culture in a microcosm. In Evolution and culture, ed. Stephen C. Levinson and P. Jaisson, 1-41. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Tomasello, Michael. 2003. Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press.
  • Zwart, Jan-Wouter. 1993. Dutch syntax: a minimalist approach. Dissertation, University of Groningen.
  1. e.g Tomasello’s Constructing a Language (2003), Goldberg’s Constructions (1995) and Constructions at Work (2006) []
  2. This refers to a “general rule of English, the one that says the VP begins with the verb. Written as a phrase structure rule, this is (30a); as a structural constraint, it is (30b).
    (30a) VP → V . . .
    (30b) [VP V . . .]”
    (Culicover & Jackendoff 2005:39) []
  3. Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch (2002), Fitch, Hauser & Chomsky (2005). []
  4. Thanks to Jan-Wouter Zwart for kindly providing me with a copy of his questions! []
  5. The reason here was that of the three panel members, Zwart was the one with the strongest generativist bent. Zwart, now at the Department of Linguistics of the University of Groningen, is author of an award-winning PhD dissertation that was also the first book-length application of the Minimalist Program (Zwart 1993). []
  6. On this note, the following remarks by Levinson are quite relevant: ‘What is right about simple nativism is that it insists on the prestructuring of our mental abilities. What is wrong about it is that it minimizes or ignores the role of ontogeny and learning, and minimizes the very stuff of our evolutionary success, namely, the cultural variation that is our special system for rapid adaptation to differing environments.’ (Levinson 2006:14) []

5 responses to “We need Simpler Syntax, but we can do without a Grammar of the Gaps”

  1. I think the analogy you draw between the shrinking of the domain attributed to UG and the ‘God of the Gaps’ phenomenon is quite perceptive.

    Incidentally, I find the shrinking of UG from its original breadth to its current reduced breadth to significantly undermine one of its most attractive characteristics to me, namely its role as an answer to ‘Plato’s Problem’ and the associated ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument.

    Clearly, we need something other than UG to account for the acquisition of all sorts of non-universal features of language. However, if we are forced to posit other non-UG mechanisms to account for these non-universal features, it seems to me that these very same mechanisms (whatever they are) should be capable, on a language-by-language basis, of accounting for the acquisition of nominally ‘universal’ features as well, as well as non-universal ones. This ‘Grammar of the Gaps’ situation seems to put UG in a very awkward position in terms of the quasi-philosophical reasoning that makes it attractive in the first place.

  2. Clearly, we need something other than UG to account for the acquisition of all sorts of non-universal features of language. However, if we are forced to posit other non-UG mechanisms to account for these non-universal features, it seems to me that these very same mechanisms (whatever they are) should be capable, on a language-by-language basis, of accounting for the acquisition of nominally ‘universal’ features as well, as well as non-universal ones.

    Exactly — and this is what constructional approaches try to do. This is also why I point out that UG may slip through our fingers if we are serious about accounting for language acquisition in a psychologically realistic way. There may be some use for ‘simple nativist’ principles that provide necessary mental prestructuring, but the question is whether (and why) these would be specific to some ‘language faculty’.

    It just seems to make more sense to me to cast the net wider, and therefore I’m more sympathetic to an approach like Tomasello’s (e.g. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, 1999), which situates the human evolutionary advantage in uniquely human, but less domain-specific cognitive capacities like being able to recognize communicative intentions in conspecifics (intention attribution).

    Tomasello, by the way, has also challenged the status of the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument. It has been the Received View for a long time, but he argues that actually, developmental evidence supports the idea that there is no such thing as the poverty of the stimulus. There has been a major discussion on the pages of Cognition some years ago.

  3. hello , if you read this book “simpler syntax ” can you tell me the whole idea about island constrains and wh- in situ , well , Any one know about thier treatment of wh-constructions , is it multifunctionality or displacement.

    Idont know why they call it “simpler syntax “… its realy hard.

    thank you

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