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Introduction To Universal Grammar

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

Universal grammar is the brainchild of Noam Chomsky. In contrast to taxonomic approach of traditional grammar, universal grammar adopts cognitive approach. Cognition is the study of processes by means of which what human beings get to know the world. Human beings have tacit (i.e. Subconscious) knowledge of grammar. That is humans know how to form and interpret expressions in their native languages. they know but they may not explain how they get this ability. This is because they have no conscious awareness of the processes involved.

Competence and Performance

Chomsky says that native speakers have grammatical competence (i.e. Tacit knowledge) in their native language. Chomsky made difference between competence and performance. According to him while competence is knolwedge of language performance is the actual use of language in concrete situations. Universal grammar is concerned with competence in that it tells what someone should know to have competence in a language. Note that performance is properly studied in psycholinguistics. Theoretically Universal Grammar (UG) generalises from the grammars of particular I-languages (i.e. Internalised linguistic system) to the grammars of all possible natural I- languages.

Universal Grammar Theory

Universal grammar is a theory of knolwedge. It is not a theory of behaviour. It mainly concerns with the internal structure of human mind. Universal grammar theory holds that the speaker knows a set of principles that apply to all languages, and parameters that vary from one language to another. Universal grammar theory is making precise statements about properties of the mind based on specific evidence. It important to note that the theory attempts to integrate grammar, mind and langauge at very moment.

Chomsky’s Questions on Linguistics

Following questions of Chomsky summarizes the aims of linguistics.

1. What constitutes knowledge of language? The linguists duty is to describe what people know about language.
2. How is such knowledge acquired? A linguist has to discover how people acquire this knowledge.
3. How is such knowledge put to use? The linguists have to see how people use the language knowledge acquired.

Sometimes there is a fourth question also.

4. What are the physical mechanisms that serve as the material basis for this system of knowledge and for the use of this knowledge? There must be some physical correlate to this mental knowledge. That is there should be a link between mind and brain.

I-Language and E-Language

Chomsky distinguises Externalized (E-) langauge from Internalized (I-) language. E language linguistics aims to collect samples of language and then to describe their properties. The linguist’s task is to bring order to the set of external facts that make up the language. The resulting grammar is described in terms of properties of such data through ‘structures’ or ‘patterns’. I-language linguists on the other hand is concerned with what a speaker knows about a language and where this langauge knowledge comes from. I-language treats language as an internal property of the human mind rather than something external. Chomsky’s theories fall within the I-language tradition and aim at exploring the mind rather than environment. I-language theory claims that establishing knowledge itself logically precedes studying how people acquire and use that knowledge. Chomsky introduced the term pragmatic competence: knowedge of how language is related to the situation in which it is used. Knowledge of language use is different from knowledge of language itself. So it may be possible to have grammatical competence without pragmatic competence.


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