What I object to are absolute statements. (never, always, all, none). What
if we agree to adopt Greenberg's terminology from his original "Universals
of Grammar" article:

(1) "With overwhelmingly more than chance frequency, rocks sink in water."
(2) "The constituent order of object-subject-verb occurs with
overwhelmingly less than chance frequency."

To me, it seems unlikely that such deviations from chance frequency can be
accounted for only by historical and cultural factors. I believe that the
deviations show that there must be some sort of neurological factors at
work. Whether the syntax we perceive is "hard wired" or whether it is
emergent from "lower level" factors that are neurological is not the issue--
*something* is "hard wired." The question is, what is it?

And this is indeed a relevant issue for those who construct languages. An
auxlanger would be wise to avoid those syntactical features that occur with
"overwhelmingly less than chance frequency" lest the reason for their low
occurrence has a neurological basis. And for conlangers, especially those
who create "experimental languages," it may be fascinating to see what it
is like to try to communicate in a conlang that breaks the "rules."


On Wed, Jul 15, 2015 at 7:24 AM, Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets <
[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> On 15 July 2015 at 15:53, Jeffrey Brown <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> >
> > It certainly seems that 4b is a much more extreme statement. How could
> one
> > even begin to prove it? It is much more reasonable to assume that the
> > underlying neurological mechanisms of language comprehension and
> production
> > do indeed limit human linguistic performance.
> >
> >
> True, but that's a tautology: all human actions are limited by the
> underlying mechanisms of different parts of our bodies. The whole point is
> to try and find exactly what these mechanisms are and how they limit our
> performance. And I believe Chomskyan UG is about as good in doing that as
> Ptolemaic circles (
> were good
> in explaining how the planets of our solar system move.
> > Universal grammar, is not a dichotomy: ALL syntax is biological versus NO
> > syntax is biological. SOME parts of syntax could be innate whereas others
> > could be cultural/historical. Somehow, this "dichotomizing" seems to be a
> > tendency among professional linguists who come up with models and then
> try,
> > vainly and ever more tendentiously, to fit every possible natural
> > linguistic feature into their bed of Procrustes.
> >
> >
> That's a distinction without a difference, as in the end all processes of
> language, including historical change, must have a biological origin, since
> those processes are done by human beings. The issue is not whether syntax
> is biological (whatever that means), but whether syntax is *hard-wired* in
> our brains, i.e. whether syntax even exists at the biological level.
> Chomsky certainly believes so. I don't: I think syntax is emergent, i.e. it
> arises from more primary things, like our generic cognitive abilities,
> combined with the limits of our memory apparatus (especially at the short
> term memory level) and the fantastic ability our brains has to form
> patterns based on limited data (so formidable indeed that it routinely
> creates patterns where there are none). Syntax, in that way, is like
> pressure and temperature are for a gas: it exists, it can be measured, and
> it's definitely useful to know how it behaves, but it is *not* a
> fundamental property (at the microscopic level, there's no such thing as
> pressure, only molecules moving about and exchanging kinetic energy via
> electromagnetic interactions with the molecules of objects in and around
> them. This kind of exchange, when averaged over the billions and billions
> of molecules that form a gas, is what gives rise to the phenomenon we call
> pressure).
> > Jeffrey
> >
> > ​P.S. To David Peterson:  Indeed, there are no plaid rocks. But also
> there
> > are no rocks lighter than air. Some aspects of "rockiness" are historical
> > whereas others are innate to "rockiness".
> > ​
> >
> Replace "air" with "water" and you'd get a statement that most people would
> also believe is true. And indeed, you could go around testing it with
> thousands of rocks and come back thinking all rocks are heavier than water.
> Until you come across pumice, a type of volcanic material that has a
> lighter density than water and will indeed float.
> The problem with claiming that something is "innate" is: is it really
> innate? Or is its seeming universality simply an artifact due to the
> limited sample size you have at your disposal?
> --
> Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets
> President of the Language Creation Society (
> Personal Website:
> Personal Tumblr: