What do we talk about, when we talk about ‘universal grammar’, and how have we talked about it?
This article sketches the history of ‘universal grammar’ as a term and as a concept, attending in particular to the range of expressions that have been used to label what human languages have in common. I focus on three contexts: medieval speculative grammar, which developed a concept of universal grammar without using that name; seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, the acknowledged heyday of western “craving for universals” (Robins 1990: 16), when terms and concepts for universal grammar proliferated; and Chomskyan generative grammar, which has adapted and reinvented universal grammar as a theoretical trademark. Chomsky asserts the continuity of seventeenth-century and generative universal grammar, while differentiating his use of the term from earlier usage and from contemporary Greenbergian terminology. I examine Chomsky’s shifting assignment of the expression ‘universal grammar’ to different lexical subclasses (modified count noun; mass noun; proper noun), as a tool for understanding the recefnt development of this notion in western language science.
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