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What is acquired: Universal and language-specific properties of grammar

Researchers working within the paradigm of Universal grammar (henceforth UG) seek to provide an adequate description of possible human grammars that fulfils a dual requirement: on the one hand, it has to be as far-reaching as to include all possible human languages, and, on the other hand, it has to be as constrained as required by the learnability criterion (Chomsky 1986: 55). This dual requirement is met by the assumption that there are universal properties or linguistic primitives that hold of all human languages (for example, the X-bar Schema, Structure Preservation or the Projection Principle), and a limited of parameterised principles or parameters that account for the range of variation across languages (Chomsky 1981; Rizzi 1982; cf. Hohenberger 2007 for a detailed discussion concerning sign languages). Universal principles and parameters are not learned, they are part of an innate universal grammar (UG), as opposed to other, idiosyncratic properties of languages.

One of the core principles of grammar concerns the syntactic representation of lexical information. The Projection principle guarantees that thematic information of lexical items is maintained at all representational levels (“representations observe the subcategorisation properties of lexical items”, Chomsky 1981: 9).1 The stipulation that every sentence has a subject, added to this principle, derives the Extended Projection Principle.

Notice that the relation between the lexicon and the syntax captured in these principles involves the assumption of a modularly organised grammar. Basically, the assumption is that syntactic structures, computed at the levels of phonetic form (PF) and logical form (LF), have to fulfil wellformedness conditions on representations. These conditions are determined in different sub-components of grammar (e.g. theta-theory, case theory, binding theory). For example, a condition for the assignment of theta-roles encoding the thematic relation between the lexical head of a syntactic construction and its subcategorised positions (that is, its arguments) is that the elements in question are assigned case (Visibility condition) (Chomsky 1986). Over the last decades, research in the domain of sign language linguistics has shown that the architecture of all natural human languages is the same, irrespective of the modality of expression they use. [1]

  • [1] Within the framework of GB theory, subcategorised positions are in a thematic relationshipwith the lexical head of the syntactic construction. Expressions that are assigned a theta-role arearguments, while expressions that are not assigned a theta-role are in no thematic relationshipto the verb (e.g. expletive ‘it’ only has the function of filling the subject position lexically).
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