“What exactly is Universal Grammar, and has anyone seen it?” (Front. Psychol., 23 June 2015), by Ewa Dąbrowska, Professor of Linguistics at Northumbria University, begins “Universal Grammar (UG) is a suspect concept” and goes on to back that up in a thoroughgoing manner. As a sample, see this devastating paragraph from the Conclusion:
Is it a fruitful approach? (Or perhaps a better question might be: Was it a fruitful approach?) It was certainly fruitful in the sense that it generated a great deal of debate. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have got us any closer to answers to the fundamental questions that it raised. One could regard the existing disagreements about UG as a sign of health. After all, debate is the stuff of scientific inquiry: initial hypotheses are often erroneous; it is by reformulating and refining them that we gradually get closer to the truth. However, the kind of development we see in UG theory is very different from what we see in the natural sciences. In the latter, the successive theories are gradual approximations to the truth. Consider an example discussed by Asimov (1989). People once believed that the earth is flat. Then, ancient Greek astronomers established that it was spherical. In the seventeenth century, Newton argued that it was an oblate spheroid (i.e., slightly squashed at the poles). In the twentieth century, scientists discovered that it is not a perfect oblate spheroid: the equatorial bulge is slightly bigger in the southern hemisphere. Note that although the earlier theories were false, they clearly approximated the truth: the correction in going from “sphere” to “oblate spheroid,” or from “oblate spheroid” to “slightly irregular oblate spheroid” is much smaller than when going from “flat” to “spherical.” And while “slightly irregular oblate spheroid” may not be entirely accurate, we are extremely unlikely to discover tomorrow that the earth is conical or cube-shaped. We do not see this sort of approximation in work in the UG approach: what we see instead is wildly different ideas being constantly proposed and abandoned. After more than half a century of intensive research we are no nearer to understanding what UG is than we were when Chomsky first used the term.
Anyone interested in this influential delusion of Chomskyism should read Dąbrowska’s paper. Thanks, Stan!
Addendum. ‘New mathematical methods’ in linguistics constitute the greatest intellectual fraud in the discipline since Chomsky, by Roger Blench: “For a method or disciplinary procedure to be deemed scientific it seems it should meet some minimum criteria […] It is relatively easy to show that on present showing none of these conditions are, or possibly can be met. If this is so, then the editor of Science has presumably been bamboozled.” Response by Sean at Replicated Typo, who disagrees with Blench but admits: “Those using mathematical models may have to spend more time justifying and clarifying their work.” Thanks, Yoram!