sponsored by

Cornell Cognitive Studies Program

time and place

May 1 and 2, 2004
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY


Morten Christiansen (Psychology)
Chris Collins (Linguistics)
Shimon Edelman (Psychology)


Linda LeVan

motivation invited speakers (partial list)

An informal meeting of linguists and psychologists held at Cornell in 1951 started off a chain of events that culminated in the first Conference on Language Universals, convened at Dobbs Ferry, New York, a decade later. The proceedings of that conference, published by MIT Press in 1963, set standards for multi-disciplinary study of language and inspired generations of scholars. The following 40 years saw, in each of the original disciplines concerned with language, tremendous progress, a few major conceptual revolutions (such as the ascendancy of cognitive psychology), and even the emergence of entirely new fields (such as computational linguistics). Because of the wealth of findings and theories offered by the various disciplines, it is now more important than ever to actively seek an integrated understanding of the nature of human language universals, the cognitive and neural mechanisms behind them, and their manifestation among different languages. To that end, the 2004 symposium organized by the Cornell Cognitive Studies Program brings together scholars of language from a variety of fields, in an event dedicated to forging new insights into the universals of language: mathematical, linguistic, psychological, neural and computational.


The symposium will combine presentations by invited speakers with targeted commentaries solicited from other speakers and from Cornell participants. The invited speakers will be asked to address the problem of the universals of language as viewed from their own discipline(s), while pointing to the wider implications of these viewpoint(s) likely to be of importance to all students of language. Position papers will be circulated ahead of time, allowing the commentators to prepare for the discussion.

tentative schedule

Each speaker will give a 45 min talk followed by 15 min of commentaries plus 30 min of questions and discussion. The 1.5-hour time slots for each speaker should allow for much discussion. The program will also include poster presentations by graduate students (both from Cornell and from elsewhere).


Attendance is free, subject to registration; an electronic registration form will be available here in January.

INVITED TALKS — abstracts

Language Universals: Patterns, Puzzles and Performance Efficiency

John A. Hawkins, USC & MPI EvAn

Comparison of a wide range of grammars reveals patterns. These patterns can suggest principles that underlie the variation. I have argued (Hawkins 1994, 2004) that a large number of patterns reflect efficiencies of various sorts in language use. The efficiency principles formulated make predictions for numerous grammatical phenomena and for corresponding patterns in performance in languages with variation, because on this view performance actually explains the grammatical variation: grammars have "fixed" or "conventionalized" the preferred structures of performance. A challenge for typology has always been to account for minority types and apparent exceptions and to try to link unusual properties to other phenomena in the relevant languages. But do general principles that hold for the majority patterns still apply to the puzzling cases? In this paper I explore patterns and puzzles in some universals of word order, relativization and morpho-syntax and I shall argue that principles of efficiency can explain both. Grammar-only approaches, by contrast, can often derive the general patterns from stipulated axioms, but this is a shallow form of explanation (what explains the axioms?) and these approaches do not predict, let alone explain, the puzzling phenomena.

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Norbert Hornstein, Maryland

Modern generative grammar makes one very big claim; that humans are biologically built to acquire, use and understand natural language (NL). This biological construction is modular in the sense that it is task specific and functionally independent of other endowments Darwin and his minions have provided to us. We name this part of the mind/brain the Faculty of Language (FL). The main aim of linguistics so construed is to describe the fine structure of FL, figure out how it interacts with other cognitive modules, and, hopefully, figure out how it is incarnated in brain wet-ware.

This general picture has been considerably elaborated over the last 45 years. To date, most progress has come by considering the structure of FL against the backdrop of the logical problem of language acquisition. The problem, as all know by now, is that the a speakers attained linguistic capacity outstrips the information contained in the evidence that the child has access to during the acquisition period. This gap between the information in the input and the knowledge attained is bridged by innate properties of FL. One limns the specific features of FL by studying these sorts of inductive gaps and postulating properties of FL that given the kinds of input generally available would permit the child to acquire the relevant language. Now, several empirical boundary conditions characterize this process. First, any child can learn any language simply if exposed sufficiently to "bits" of the relevant language. Second, the information need not be systematically presented nor carefully monitored or supervised. Third, exposure suffices, instruction and training are irrelevant. Forth, the attained capacity vastly exceeds both qualitatively and quantitatively that of the input. These features together indicate that whatever properties FL has are general in the sense of being applicable to any NL and reflex like in kicking in when the appropriate input occurs. The forth property indicates that what is attained is in part at least a set of recursive rules able to generate a practically infinite set of expressions of any given NL. Thus, at least one feature of FL is that it can take well formed, relatively simple linguistic inputs and from this create a set of rules (a grammar) of the relevant language. In other words, part of FL is a Universal Grammar, a recipe for building language specific grammars for any language based on "bits" of that language.

This, to repeat, is all conventional wisdom. Universals on this conception are simply those features of FL that underlie this process. They are, in other words, the principles that describe the structure and functioning of FL. So, speaking most properly, Universals are the principles of Universal Grammar which are just the design features of FL.

Note, on this conception universals are quite abstract. They need not be observable even were one to survey thousands of languages looking for commonalities. In fact, on this conception, the mere fact that every language displayed some property P does not imply that P is a universal of NL. Put more paradoxically, the fact that P holds universally does not imply that P is a universal. Conversely, some property can be a universal even if only manifested in a single NL. The only thing that makes a principle a Universal on this view is that it is a property of FL. Universals so conceived are the laws of FL and the aim of the study of language is to uncover these laws.

How is this done? The short answer is any way one can. The longer answer involves identifying the research programs devised to advance this end. My paper will be an attempt to survey three such research programs in the history of modern linguistics. We will concentrate on the two most recent, the GB program theory and the more recent Minimalist Program.

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Laws of Transmission and Form Help to Explain Language Universals

James R. Hurford, Edinburgh

D'Arcy Thomson's classic work _On Growth and Form_ identified a kind of process, distinct from natural selection, contributing to the symmetries and patterns observable in nature. Examples are the the hexagonal cells in honeycombs, and the spiral shapes of snail shells. A well-known quotation from Chomsky is "It could be that when the brain reached a certain level of complexity it simply automatically had certain properties because that's what happens when you pack 10^10 neurons into something the size of a basketball." This has been interpreted as an appeal to "as-yet unknown laws of growth and form" by Pinker and Bloom. Both D'Arcy Thomson and Chomsky generally take laws of growth and form to provide an alternative kind of explanation to any kind of selection. It now seems clear that selection and growth-and-form are not contrasting explanations for patterned phenomena, but complementary. Laws of growth and form mathematically determine the overall topology of the landscape with which selection works.

Both D'Arcy Thomson and Chomsky appeal to processes of GROWTH WITHIN SINGLE INDIVIDUALS to explain their eventual patterned forms. In this paper, I will explore the extent to which another process, CULTURAL TRANSMISSION, contributes to the patterned form of its products. Languages, while existing within an envelope constrained biologically by what is acquirable by individuals, are also cultural products constructed over many generations by a cycle of iterated cultural transmission. In the course of this cycle, languages exist in two life-phases, as I-Language (representations in individual minds) and as E-Language (public behaviour). In practice, what linguists describe is guided both by intuitive judgements about internal representations and by observation of public behaviour.

An individual's I-Language defines an infinite set of forms. This internal representation is acquired on the basis of a necessarily finite set of examples. The internalized grammar, moreover, generalizes powerfully over the observed examples, extrapolating well beyond the finite experience that triggers it. Thus there is, every generation, a repeated process of data-compression, and re-production of a new wave of public expressions from the compressed representations. Given this repeated cycle of induction and selective expression, certain patterns naturally emerge, by what one can call "Laws of Transmission and Form". Many such patterns can be observed in all languages, and all can be observed in many languages, thus deserving the label "linguistic universal". Examples include: the typical patterning of vowel systems; the symmetry found in consonant systems; the compositionality of syntax; and Zipfian frequency laws. The existence of such historical processes eases the explanatory burden on the innate human Language Acquisition Device. To be sure, one still needs to postulate some innate specific predispositions in language learners, but these can be relatively weak, compared to the power which must be attributed to a device which has only one generation in which to make its impact (the Chomskyan LAD). In the Chomskyan mode of explanation for linguistic universals, the set of possible languages is the set of acquirable languages. In the present extended view, we identify HISTORICALLY POSSIBLE languages, that is languages standing some way along in a cultural tradition; these are a proper subset of the languages acquirable (given suitable data) by an individual.

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Language universals in the brain: How linguistic are they?

Ralph-Axel Müller, San Diego State University

If language universals are not principles of communicative use (as thought by De Saussure), but principles of the mind (as affirmed by Chomsky), they are expected to be supported by principles of the brain. Cognitive neuroscience views human brains as grossly universal in structure and function. However, precise morphology and functional organization are remarkably variable and subject to plasticity.

The search for neural bases of language universals can, in a first approach, be limited to brain regions with known involvement in language processing. I will focus mostly on left inferior frontal cortex (“Broca's area”). In principle, neural bases of language universals are expected to display some type of specificity (in architecture or processing modes) that has a developmental explanation. For example, one could look for a unique type of layered cellular organization (cytoarchitecture) in Broca's area that would emerge based on intrinsic (genetic) information. This specific cytoarchitecture would then support specific universal principles of language. Available neuroscientific evidence speaks against this simple expectation. Broca's area does not appear to display universally specific cytoarchitecture. In fact, it can be functionally substituted by other cortices in case of early brain damage, especially by its right-hemisphere counterpart.

One characteristic that is mostly shared by inferior frontal cortices in the two hemispheres is interregional connectivity. This connectivity can be characterized as partaking in functions usually considered extra-linguistic, such as observation and imitation, joint attention, working memory, object perception, and polymodal integration. However, rather than “extra-linguistic” these functions may be considered protolinguistic in the sense that their convergence in inferior frontal cortex is a prerequisite for language acquisition in the child brain. Language universals, viewed from this perspective, may therefore emerge from convergent processing characteristics of a variety of ingredient functions that are not themselves specifically linguistic.

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Shimon Edelman <>
Last modified on Tue Dec 16 10:35:12 2003