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Universals in cognitive theories of language

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Generative linguistics’ search for linguistic universals (1) is not comparable to the vague explanatory suggestions of the article, (2) clearly merits a more central place than linguistic typology in cognitive science, (3) is fundamentally untouched by the article’s empirical arguments, (4) best explains the important facts of linguistic diversity, and (5) illuminates the dominant component of language’s “biocultural” nature: biology.
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Universals in cognitive theories of language
commentary to Evans and Levinson to appear in BBS
Paul Smolenskya and Emmanuel Dupouxb
aDepartment of Cognitive Science, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218-2685.
smolensky@jhu.edu http://www.cogsci.jhu.edu/faculty/smolensky.html
bLaboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en
Sciences Sociales, Département d'Etudes Cognitives, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Centre
National de la Recherche Scientifique, 75005 Paris, France. emmanuel.dupoux@gmail.com
http://www.lscp.net/persons/dupoux.html
Abstract: Generative linguistics’ search for linguistic universals (1) is not comparable to the
vague explanatory suggestions of the article, (2) clearly merits a more central place than
linguistic typology in cognitive science, (3) is fundamentally untouched by the article’s empirical
arguments, (4) best explains the important facts of linguistic diversity, and (5) illuminates the
dominant component of language’s “biocultural” nature: biology.
1. A science of cognition needs falsifiable theories. Although the article’s final seven
theses include suggestions we find promising, they are presented as vague speculation, rather
than as a formal theory that makes falsifiable predictions. It is thus nonsensical to construe them
as superior to a falsifiable theory on the grounds that that theory has been falsified. Every theory
is certain to make some predictions that are empirically inadequate, but the appropriate response
within a science of cognition is to improve the theory and not to take refuge in the safety of
unfalsifiable speculation. Insightful speculation is vital – not because speculation can replace
formal theorizing but because speculation can be sharpened to become formal theory. Theory and
speculation are simply not empirically comparable.
2. In a theory of cognition, a universal principle is a property true of all human
minds – a cog-universal – not a superficial descriptive property true of the
expressions of all languages – a des-universal. This is why generative grammar, with
its explicit goal of seeking cog-universals, has always been more central to cognitive science
than linguistic typology, which only speaks to des-universals. Unlike descriptive linguistic
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typology, generative grammar merits a central place in cognitive science because its topic is
cognition and its method is science – falsifiable theory formulation.
3a. Counterexamples to des-universals are not counterexamples to cog-
universals. The des- universals of Box 1 must not be confused with the cog-universals sought
by generative grammar. This general point applies to all cases addressed in the article, but we
only illustrate with one example. That Chinese questions do not locate wh-expressions in a
different superficial position than the corresponding declarative sentence (Box 1) is a
counterexample to a wh-movement des-universal but, famously, generative syntax has revealed
that Chinese behaves like English with respect to syntactically determined restrictions on
possible interpretations of questions; this follows if questions in both languages involve the same
dependency between the same two syntactic positions, one of them “fronted.” In English, the
fronted position is occupied by the wh-phrase and the other is empty, whereas in Chinese the
reverse holds (Huang 1998; Legendre et al. 1998). It is the syntactic relation between these
positions, not the superficial location of the wh-phrase, that restricts possible interpretations.
Such a hypothesized cog-universal can only be falsified by engaging the full apparatus of the
formal theory. It establishes nothing to point to the superficial fact that wh-expressions in
Chinese are not fronted.
3b. There are two types of cog-universals: Architectural and specific universals.
The former specify the computational architecture of language: levels of representation
(phonological, syntactic, semantic, etc.) data structures (features, hierarchical trees, indexes,
etc.), operations (rule application, constraint satisfaction, etc.). The authors correctly recognize
these as “design features” of human languages, but they erroneously exclude them from the set
of relevant universals. These architectural universals do not yield falsifiable predictions
regarding typology, but they yield falsifiable predictions regarding language learnability. For
instance, Peperkamp et al (2008) showed that without architectural universals regarding
phonological rules, general-purpose unsupervised learning algorithms simply fail to acquire the
phonemes of a language. The latter, specific universals, are tied to particular formal theories
specifying in detail the architecture’s levels, structures, and operations, thus yielding falsifiable
predictions regarding language typology.
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4a. Optimality Theory (OT), mentioned in the article as a promising direction,
contains the strongest architectural and specific universals currently available
within generative grammar. According to OT's architectural universals (Prince &
Smolensky 1993/2004; 1997), grammatical computation is optimization over a set of ranked
constraints. This strong hypothesis (more than the hypothesis of “parameters”), has contributed
insight into all levels of grammatical structure from phonology to pragmatics and has addressed
acquisition, processing, and probabilistic variation (http://roa.rutgers.edu hosts more than 1,000
OT papers). In a particular OT theory, specific universals take the form of a set of constraints
(e.g., C1 = “a sentence requires a subject”; C2 = “each word must have an interpretation,” and so
on. A grammar for a particular language is then a priority ranking of these constraints. For
instance, C1 is ranked higher than C2 in the English grammar, so we say “it is raining,” although
expletive “it” contributes nothing to the meaning; in Italian, the reverse priority relation holds,
making the subjectless sentence “piove” optimal – grammatical (Grimshaw & Samek-Lodovici
1998).
4b. OT’s cog-universals yield theories of cross-linguistic typology that generally
predict the absence of des-universals. Each ranking of a constraint set mechanically
predicts the possible existence of a human language. OT therefore provides theories of linguistic
typology that aim, as rightly urged by the article, to grapple with the full spectrum of cross-
linguistic variation. OT makes use of a large set of specific universals (i.e., constraints), but
because of the resolution of constraint conflict through optimization, they do not translate into
des-universals. In the preceding example, C1 is violated in Italian and C2 in English. Some des-
universals can emerge, however, as general properties of the entire typology, and they can be
falsified by the data (as, perhaps, the existence of onsetless languages). This does not entail
abandoning the Generative Linguistics program nor the OT framework, but revising the theory
with an improved set of specific universals.
5. Language is more a biological trait than a cultural construct. The authors do not
provide criteria to determine where language is located on the continuum of biocultural hybrids.
Lenneberg, quoted in the target article, presented four criteria for distinguishing biological traits
3

from cultural phenomena (universality across the species, across time, absence of learning of the
trait, rigid developmental schedule) and concluded that oral (but not written) language is a
biological trait (Lenneberg 1964). The validity of this argument is ignored by the authors.
Ironically, OT is more readily connected to biology than to culture: the f-universals of OT are
emergent symbolic-level effects of subsymbolic optimization over “soft” constraints in neural
networks (Smolensky & Legendre 2006), and Soderstrom et al. (2006) derive an explicit abstract
genome that encodes the growth of neural networks containing connections implementing
universal constraints.
References
Grimshaw, J. & Samek-Lodovici, V. (1998) Optimal subjects and subject universals. In: Is the
best good enough? Optimality and competition in syntax, ed. P. Barbosa, D. Fox, P.
Hagstrom, M. McGinnis & D. Pesetsky, pp. 193–219. MIT Press.
Huang, C.-T. (1998) Logical relations in Chinese and the theory of grammar. Garland.
Legendre, G., Smolensky, P. & Wilson, C. (1998) When is less more? Faithfulness and minimal
links in wh-chains. In: Is the best good enough? Optimality and competition in syntax, ed.
P. Barbosa, D. Fox, P. Hagstrom, M. McGinnis & D. Pesetsky, pp. 249–89. MIT Press.
Lenneberg, E. (1964) The capacity for language acquisition. In: The structure of language, ed. J.
A. Fodor & J. J. Katz, pp. 579–603. Prentice Hall.
Peperkamp, S., Le Calvez, R., Nadal, J. P. & Dupoux, E. (2006) The acquisition of allophonic
rules: Statistical learning with linguistic constraints. Cognition 101:B31–B41.
Prince, A. & Smolensky, P. (1993/2004) Optimality theory: Constraint interaction in generative
grammar. Technical Report, Rutgers University and University of Colorado at Boulder,
1993. Revised version published by Blackwell, 2004. Rutgers Optimality Archive 537.
Prince, A. & Smolensky, P. (1997). Optimality: From neural networks to universal grammar,
Science 275(5306):1604–10.
Smolensky, P. & Legendre, G. (2006) The harmonic mind. 2 vols. MIT Press.
Soderstrom, M., Mathis D. & Smolensky, P. (2006) Abstract genomic encoding of universal
grammar in optimality theory. In: The harmonic mind, ed. P. Smolensky & G. Legendre,
pp. 403–71. MIT Press.
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