Any linguist trying to organize all aspects of a language into a descriptive grammar is faced with the problem of expressing ambiguities, paraphrases, and implications into his or her system. Simply put, how does English, for example, handle the two sentences “beware of flying planes,” which can be interpreted as “be wary of the act of flying planes” and “be wary of planes that are flying overhead?” These sentences cannot be diagrammed to uncover their real meaning; they are disambiguated only, possibly, by context and intonation. If in print form, the latter option is dismissed.

Paraphrases, ambiguities, and implications are all issues of semantics arising from syntax. Some traditional linguists argued that they should not be placed in a descriptive grammar because they are merely plays on word order, but Noam Chomsky produced the counter argument that because native speakers can understand all three creations effortlessly, they are a required part of any grammar. How they are to be included is where the theory of universal syntax comes in.

Firstly, it must be pointed out that universal syntax depends on the veracity of the theory of human language being innate and not learned. If this is not true, then universal syntax cannot exist for reasons that shortly will become clear. Universal syntax is the base human mechanism for language, the most primitive system of communication that the brain uses. The theory states that all modern languages are run through transformations that commit the syntax of a spoken language into the syntax of the human brain. Since a lot of people on E2 seem to be skilled in computers, universal syntax transformations can be likened to (forgive me for this) Photoshop filters, wherein bits of an image are distorted, cut out, rearranged, and generally altered to achieve a new image. The same things happen to a sentence when transforming English to the universal syntax. For example, take the following two sentences, identical in meaning: “I gave him the book” and “I gave the book to him.” A possible transformation from English to universal syntax would arrange the elements of both sentences to a generic S-V-DO-IO (Subject – Verb – Direct Object – Indirect Object) order, turning the second sentence into “I gave him the book.”

Additionally, transformations run in the other direction, too, filtering thoughts in the universal syntax into spoken language. Depending on the desired meaning, the correct transformations would be activated to achieve the result. If one wanted to utter the question “have you stopped beating your wife,” which obviously implies that the person being asked the question at one point was beating his wife, the outward transformation would delete any words that implied otherwise.

Of course, all this is experimental theory. Some linguists go as far as to say that all human syntax is a collection of transformations from the universal syntax and back, while yet others simply do not believe it. There is strong evidence for universal syntax, however. Take, for example, the case of passive voice construction. Children, it is proven, do not use passive voice; at a certain age, after receiving enough exposure to it, they begin to use it. Is it possible that the universal syntax only has structures for active voice? Studies indicate as much, as children simply have trouble understanding it. Passive voice is obviously a learned construction. Active voice, it seems, is innate to humans in the same way that many believe creative language in general is innate.

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