February 03, 2020

The Social Origins of Universal Grammar

Josh Armstrong, UCLA

Contemporary linguistic theory takes the generative features of language use as a central focus of study. Many linguists—most notably Noam Chomsky—have maintained that explaining these generative features of language requires an appeal to a human language faculty or a universal grammar: a biologically guided, species-typical, set of cognitive procedures for building linguistic meanings in ways that are highly creative but also highly constrained. My talk explores the evolutionary origins of universal grammar. I will argue that contemporary human individuals are indeed biologically prepared for language in ways that Chomsky and others have maintained, but that an explanation of why this is so is inexorably bound up with social facts and processes. There are, I argue, substantive social prerequisites on initial biological emergence of universal grammar and on the subsequent persistence and spread of universal grammar across human or hominin populations. This social conception of the evolution of universal grammar integrates internal and external approaches to linguistic theory and provides a straightforward explanation of the generative features of language use.