Terrence Deacon


Terrence Deacon

Anthropology Department
University of California, Berkeley


The semiotic basis of universal grammar

 Symbolic reference and grammar are inextricably intertwined. The most universal grammatical attributes that characterize human languages reflect semiotic constraints on symbol combinations that derive from the necessary dependency of symbolic reference on underlying iconic and indexical modes of reference. This dependency is often bracketed from consideration by ignoring the semiotic work required to establish a “conventional” correspondence relationship. Thus, treating word reference as mere synchronic arbitrary correlation obscures its dependency on prior semiosis. Because symbolic reference is made possible by relations between these more constrained iconic and indexical relationships, the constraints of these lower-order forms are inherited by constraints on symbol-symbol relations, such as in affixes, phrases, sentences, etc. This implies that many properties identified as language universals are intrinsic to the semiotic constraints of symbolic communication and are not imposed from an independent (e.g. genetic or cultural) source of grammatical principles. The iconic and indexical constraints underlying grammar are discovered pragmatically via successful or failed reference, contrary to the “poverty of the stimulus” claim, and irrespective of explicit correction of grammar or syntax. These basic semiotic constraints are initially learned prior to the beginning of language acquisition as infants learn to communicate gesturally, and are subsequently transferred to communication using words. The initial discovery of these prelinguistic semiotic constraints is supported by evolved human-specific predispositions to direct and track the attentional orientation of others, such as in pointing and gaze following. Impairments affecting these predispositions and the ability to acquire working knowledge of these basic semiotic constraints may be a factor in certain disturbances of early language acquisition, such as in autism.

Five major semiotic constraints contributing to universal grammar are:

  1. Recursive structure (only symbols can provide non-destructive [i.e. opaque] recursion across logical types; e.g. phrasal levels)
  2. Predication structure (symbols must be bound to indices in order to refer; this binding is itself an indexical function; the index can be an extralinguistic sign)
  3. Transitivity and embedding constraints (indexicality depends on immediate correlation and/or contiguity, and is transitive; this makes co-expression and adjacency the default and constrains long-distance dependency relations)
  4. Quantification (symbolized indexical operations require re-specification with respect to their individuation of reference since indices are intrinsically singular whereas symbols are intrinsically general).
  5. Iconism and long-distance indexical dependencies (the co-expression-contiguity constraint on indexical binding can be extended by feature-agreement between an index and the most proximate agreeing object, as in gender or numerosity marking).

This paper builds on arguments made in Deacon (2003 & 2012) providing examples of how these semiotic constraints are initially discovered in infancy and incorporated into language acquisition, and how they can account for many of the most ubiquitous and ineluctable grammatical features of language.

Deacon, T. (2003) Universal grammar and semiotic constraints. In M. Christiansen and S. Kirby (eds.) Language Evolution. Oxford University Press. pp. 111-139.
Deacon, T. (2012) Beyond The Symbolic Species. In T. Schilhab, F. Stjernfeldt, and T. Deacon (eds.) The Symbolic Species Evolved, Springer, pp. 9-38.

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