Reflections On Linguistics & ‘Universal Grammar’


I came across the following excellent article by blogger ‘ibbelund’ on Paul Williams site and just had to steal it! Also, as a note to budding Muslim ‘intellectuals’, notice the authors extensive use of footnotes and references, more than thirty in a short article. You rarely see this level of rigour from Muslims but it is the norm in Western academia.

Are children equipped with a ‘Universal Grammar’?

In the book Linguistics[1]: An Introduction to Linguistic theory, which is a textbook of linguistic theory intended for undergraduate students and early graduate students in linguistics, there are some fascinating discussions concerning human language and children’s language acquisition[2]. The following are quotes from the mentioned book:

Young children, limited in so many respects, accomplish with apparent ease a remarkable cognitive[3] feat. In just a few short years, without benefit of any direct instruction or correction, they develop a very complex and uniform[4] cognitive system of linguistic knowledge, a grammar of the language being acquired. Just how children do this is a central question that linguistic theory tries to answer. What makes the acquisition problem particularly intriguing is that we come to know vastly more about our language than we are provided evidence for in our linguistic environment.” [5]
“How did we come to know so much about the structure and meaning of sentences in our language when what we hear are simply sequences of sounds? This problem of explaining the ease, rapidity and uniformity of language development in the face of impoverished[6] data is called the logical problem of language acquisition[7], and was first posed by Noam Chomsky (1955)” [8]

In the course of acquiring a language, children are exposed to only a finite set of utterances. Yet they come to use and understand an infinite set of sentences, as discussed above. This has been referred to as the creative aspect of language use. This ‘creativity’ does not refer to the ability to write poetry or novels but rather the ability to produce and understand an unlimited set of new sentences never spoken or heard previously. The precise linguistic input[9] children receive differs from child to child; no two children are exposed to exactly the same set of utterances. Yet, they all arrive at pretty much the same grammar. The input that children get is haphazard[10] in the sense that caretakers do not talk to their children to illustrate a particular point of grammar. Yet, all children develop systematic knowledge of language. Thus despite the severe limitations and variation in the input children receive, and also in their personal circumstances, they all develop a rich and uniform system of linguistic knowledge. The knowledge attained goes beyond the input in various ways. How do we come to know as much as we do about language if not from the linguistic environment?

In answer to the question of the logical problem of language acquisition, it has been proposed that much of what we know about our language is not in fact learned from the input, but is rather part of an innate[11] endowment[12], which we referred to above as ‘Universal Grammar’ (UG). UG specifies the form and functioning of human language in general, hence principles which hold in all languages. On this view, the child’s mind does not approach language as a tabula rasa (a blank slate) to be written on by experience alone, or armed only with general problem-solving skills such as imitation, memorization, analogy[13], or general introduction. Rather, children are equipped with a set of specific expectations about linguistic structure and the principles which govern language. UG helps them overcome the limitations of the input and guides their grammatical development in particular ways, so children develop language rapidly and efficiently, that it is, with relatively few errors, and despite the poverty of stimulus[14] (for example, the lack of negative evidence[15]), because the basic form of language is given to them by human biology.” [16]

The uniqueness of human language

According to linguist Tore Jansson:
“Human languages are the most highly developed and most flexible systems for communication that we know of. The distinctive feature of those systems is that they can be used to convey messages of any degree of complexity in an incredibly swift and efficient manner. Their degree of complexity, their variability, and their adaptability are instances of how different they are from the means of communication that are used by other mammals”[17]

According to linguist Anders Holmberg:
“One of the properties we have as humans which makes us different from other species is a capacity for acquiring and using a form of language which is far more complex than the language, or system of communication, of any other species. This capacity has been crucial for the evolution of human technology and human society, providing us with a huge advantage over other species. The advantage derives not just from the fact that human language is a superior instrument of communication between people, but it is also a superior instrument for the acquisition of knowledge, and for storing knowledge, and importantly, it is an instrument for rational thought”[18]

Linguist Geoffrey Sampson wrote the following in the book Writing Systems from 1985:
“Although much of the impetus[19] for the original growth of linguistic science in the early nineteenth century stemmed from the hope that examination of the history of languages would reveal the laws by which sophisticated modern communication-systems had evolved out of more primitive antecedents[20], nowadays it seems more plausible to think that even the oldest languages for which data are available represent essentially the same high level of development as our contemporary languages…” [21]

Teaching mankind al-bayān

In the Quran it says:
“The Merciful (Allah, God); (it is) He who taught the Quran; he created man; he taught him al-bayān” (The Quran, chapter 55, verses 1-4)

Man (al-insan’ ar. الانسان) can refer to mankind in general as a genus, i.e. mankind, or one particular human. The verse refers to humans in general according to many scholars (not all). According to Ibn al-‘Atiyya Al-Andalusi (d. 541 A.H/ 1146 C.E), Al-Zahrawi and other scholars that which is intended in this verse is mankind in general. [22]

According to the famous exegete Al-Baghawi (d. 516 A.H/ 1122 C.E) the view that what is intended in the verse is mankind in general is the opinion of Abu al-‘Aliyya (d. between 90-93 A.H/ 708- 711 C.E.), Ibn Zayd (182 A.H/798 C.E) and Al-Hasan (al-Basri) (d. 110 A.H./728 C.E) [23]

What is the meaning of this word al-bayān (Arabic. البيان)? Al-bayan is in the definite article (English: ‘the’, Arabic: Al). The word ’bayān’ is polysemic, carrying different, yet related meanings, such as for example: ‘clearness’, ‘plainness’, ‘obviousness’, ‘manifestation[24]’, ‘elucidation[25]’, ‘explanation’, ‘demonstration’, ‘eloquence’ etc.[26]

According to the medieval scholar of Arabic language Ibn al-Manzur al-Ifriqī who is the author of one of the most famous lexicons of the Arabic language Lisan al-‘Arab:

Al-Bayān is that through which something is illustrated (exposed) in terms of its meaning and in other senses”[27]

According to the exegete Ibn ‘Atiyya Al-Andalusi (d. 541 A.H/ 1146 C.E) Al-Bayān in the context of the verse means:

“Speech and understanding and demonstrating (exposing) this through utterances[28], so said Ibn Zayd (182 A.H/798 C.E)[29] and the majority (of scholars of Quranic exegesis), and that is what mankind has been specially favoured with amongst all other animals”[30]

The famous exegete Al-Baydawi (d. 684 or 691. A.H/ 1286 or 1291 C.E) explained the meaning of ‘al-bayan’ in the verse in a manner very similar to the explanation of Ibn ‘Atiyya [31]

Another famous Quranic exegete Ibn Kathir (d. 774 A.H/ 1372 C.E) favoured the opinion that what is intended by ‘al-bayan’ in the context of the verse is ‘speech’. What is apparent from the explanation of Ibn Kathir is that he understood the teaching of ‘al-bayan’ in this context as making speech and the pronunciation of different sounds easy[32]

Early humans possessing language as we know it; an impossibility?

“In earlier periods this was not necessarily so. Before the appearance Homo sapiens sapiens, and for some time after that there were Neanderthal men. Their brains were at least as large as ours, on average, but the form of their skulls and jaws differed from ours in some respects. This may have prevented them from pronouncing certain speech sounds that are in common use today. However this is by no means certain, since the remains of Neanderthal people consist only of fragments of bones, and speech is produced through activities in the soft tissue of the mouth and throat. Scholars who work with this problem therefore have to estimate the shape of the tissue on the basis of the shape of the bones, which is quite difficult. The types of human beings who existed several hundred thousand years ago had skulls and jaws that were even more different from ours, which makes it less probable that they could speak like us.

In summary, we can be reasonably certain that languages such as the ones we used have existed for at least 40,000 years, but they may have been in use for much longer. The upper limit is about two million years, around the time when man first began to produce stone tools”[33]

In other words, from an anthropological (and palaeontological) view it is not very probable, however not impossible. One might however object to such pessimism concerning the possibility of early humans possessing language as we know it, based on analysis of the shape of jaws and skulls, with the fact that there is not even a consensus among mainstream anthropologists on whether Homo Sapiens and Homo Erectus constitute separate species or not. I do not intend by that to try to demean the research and conclusions of anthropologists, who am I to do so. It is merely an attempt to argue that such arguments are not necessarily very conclusive.

In 1994 a team of four anthropologists from USA, Australia, Czech republic and China published a paper entitled ‘The Case for Sinking Homo Erectus. 100 Years of Pithecanthropus is Enough!’.

In the abstract of this paper the authors express the following:

” We propose here to merge Homo erectus within the evolutionary species Homo sapiens. The origin of Homo erectus lies in a cladogenic event at least 2.0 myr ago. We view the subsequent lineage as culturally and physically adapted to an increasingly broad range of ecologies, ultimately leading to its spread across the old world prior to the beginning of the Middle Pleistocene Homo erectus differs from Homo habilis in a number of ways. The vast majority of these distinctions also characterize Homo sapiens. The few distinctions of Homo sapiens that are not shared with Homo erectus appear to be responses to, or reflections of, continuing evolutionary trends of increasing cultural complexity, increasing brain size, and the progressive substitution of technology for biology” [34]

The renowned American anthropologist Milfred H. Wolpoff who was part of the team behind the paper has continued to defend and argue for the view that Homo erectus and Homo sapiens constitute a single species.

Some reflections:

Truly our language is a great gift; an ability to express our inner feelings and complicated ideas with words, and communicate with others in an effective manner.

I give praise to the Creator and Originator of the Universe for this precious gift. I would not trade it for all the money in the world. I believe that there are questions which we must ask ourselves; ‘do we have these abilities for a reason and a purpose?´. Is it really reasonable to think that it is simply a matter of chance? If we have been bestowed with our language and superior intelligence for a purpose, what is that purpose? Is it to eat, drink, sleep, procreate, form bonds with others, and enjoy different types of pleasures only, just like other animals, or is there a greater purpose? According to Islam the existence of mankind fulfils a greater purpose than those things mentioned, however, this is a topic that deserves to be treated separately, in another article.
[1] Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. See: Fromkin, Vicoria A et al. Linguistics: an introduction to linguistic theory, 2000, Blackwell Publishing, introduction.
[2] “acquisition”: noun: “the act of getting something, especially knowledge, a skill etc.” To acquire: “To gain something by your own efforts” Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary, eight edition 2010, Oxford University Press, p 13
[3] “Cognitive”: Adjective: “connected with mental processes of understanding” see previous reference, p. 285
[4] “Uniform”: adjective: “not varying; the same in all parts and at all times”Ibid, p. 1687
[5] Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. See: Fromkin, Vicoria A, et al. Linguistics: an introduction to linguistic theory, pp. 13-14.
[6] “Impoverished”: adjective: “poor in quality, because sth is missing” Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary, p. 782
[7] The words and sentences marked in bold have been marked so by the author of the book, not by me.
[8], Fromkin, Vicoria A, et al. Linguistics: an introduction to linguistic theory, p. 14
[9] “Input”: noun: “time, knowledge, ideas, etc. that you put into work”Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary, p. 803
[10] “haphazard”: adjective: “ with no particular order or plan; not organized well” see previous reference, p. 705
[11] “innate”: “adjective, (of a quality, feeling etc.) that you have when you are born” see previous reference, p. 803.
[12] “endowment”: noun: “ a quality or ability that you are born with”. See previous reference, p 502.
[13] “analogy”: noun: “a comparison of one thing with another thing that has similar features”, see previous reference, p. 48.
[14] “Stimulus”: noun: “something that helps sb/sth to develop better or more quickly” Ibid, p. 1519.
[15] “Negative evidence”: “direct information that certain sentences are ungrammatical” Fromkin, Vicoria A, et al. Linguistics: an introduction to linguistic theory, p. 16.
[16] See previous reference, pp. 15-16.
[17] Jansson, Tore. The History of Languages: An Introduction. 2012. Oxford University Press. p.6.
[19] “Impetus”: noun: “something that encourages a process or activity to develop more quickly” Oxford advanced learners’ dictionary, p. 780.
[20] “antecedents”: noun: “ a thing or an event that exists or comes before another, and may have influenced it” See previous reference, p. 55.
[21] Sampson, Geoffrey, Writing systems, 1985, Stanford University Press, p.17.
[22]: Ibn ‘Atiyya, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Haqq, Al-Muharrar al-wajiz fi tafsir al-kitab al-‘Aziz, unknown year, Dar Ibn Hazm, p. 1798. According to Al-Baghawi the view that what is intended in the verse is mankind in general is the opinion of Abu al-‘Aliyya (d. between 90-93 A.H/ 708- 711 C.E.), Ibn Zayd (182 A.H/798 C.E) and Al-Hasan (al-Basri) (d. 110 A.H./728 C.E), see:
[23] Al-Baghawi, Al-Hussayn bin Mas’ud,Ma’alim al-tanzil, 2002, Dar Ibn Hazm, p.1258.
[24] “Manifestation”: noun: “an event, action or thing that is a sign that sth exists or is happening”. ‘To manifest: :verb: “to show sth clearly, especially a feeling, an attitude or a quality” Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary, p.936.
[25] “Elucidation”: noun: ‘To elucidate’: verb: “to make sth clearer by explaining it more fully” See previous reference, p. 493..
[26] Wehr, Hans, A dictionary of modern written Arabic: (Arabic- English), fourth edition, 1994, spoken language services, p 106..
[27] Ibn Manzur, Muhammad bin Mukarram, Lisan al.’Arab, 2009, Dar al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya,, vol. 13, p.79. My apologiez if this translation is not so clear. The sentence is quite clear in Arabic, but not so easy to translate in a manner which is faithful to the text, yet clear in translation.
[28] . Or ‘words’, the phrase used by the author is ‘al-qawl’ (Arabic.
القول ) . It can mean ‘utterances’ or ‘words’ in the context of its use.
[29] When the name ‘Ibn Zayd’ is mentioned without further specification in books of Quranic explanation the one who is referred to is a scholar by the name ‘Abd al-Rahman bin Zayd bin Aslam al-‘Adawi who died in the year 182 A.H/798 C.E.
[30] Ibn ‘Atiyya, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Haqq, Al-Muharrar al-wajiz fi tafsir al-kitab al-‘aziz, , p. 1798. The author is referring to the term animals in its more general meaning as ‘living creatures’.
[31] Al-Baydawi, ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Umar. Anwar al-tanzil wa asrar al-ta’wil. First edition, no year.. Dar Ihya al-turath al-‘arabi. Vol 5., p. 170.
[32] Ibn Kathir, Isma’il bin ‘Umar. Tafsir al-Qur’an al-’Azim, 2002, Dar Ibn Hazm, Vol. 4, p 2767. The opinions concerning the meaning of al-bayan which have been mentioned are not the only opinions which exist. For a summary of the different opinions which exist concerning the meaning of bayan in the verse, I advise the reader who understands Arabic well to consult the work Jami’ al-bayan ‘an ta’wil al-Qur’an by Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari.
[33] Janson, Tore. The History of Languages: An Introduction. pp. 5-6


Al-Baghawi, Al-Hussayn bin Mas’ud, Ma’alim al-tanzil, 2002, Dar Ibn Hazm.
Al-Baydawi, ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Umar. Anwar al-tanzil wa asrar al-ta’wil. First edition, unknown year.. Dar Ihya al-turath al-‘arabi.
Fromkin, Vicoria A. et al. Linguistics: an introduction to linguistic theory, 2000, Blackwell Publishing
Ibn ‘Atiyya, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Haqq, Al-Muharrar al-wajiz fi tafsir al-kitab al-‘Aziz, unknown year, Dar Ibn Hazm
Ibn Kathir, Isma’il bin ‘Umar. Tafsir al-Qur’an al-’Azim, 2002, Dar Ibn Hazm
Ibn Manzur, Muhammad bin Mukarram, Lisan al-’Arab, 2009, Dar al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya
Janson, Tore. The History of Languages: An Introduction. 2012. Oxford University Press.
Sampson, Geoffrey, Writing systems, 1985, Stanford University Press
Turnbull, Joanna (editor), Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary, eight edition 2010, Oxford University Press
Wehr, Hans, A dictionary of modern written Arabic: (Arabic- English), fourth edition, 1994, spoken language services


One thought on “Reflections On Linguistics & ‘Universal Grammar’

  1. Assalamu ‘aleikum. Thank you for your positive review! But, please be sure to notify me if you or someone else finds some clear errors, so that I can correct them.

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