Principles and parameters is a framework in generative
linguistics. Principles and parameters was largely
formulated by the linguists Noam
Chomsky and Howard
Lasnik, though it was the culmination of the research
of many linguists. Today, many linguists have adopted
this framework, and it is considered the dominant form
of mainstream generative linguistics.
The central idea of principles and parameters is that
a person's syntactic
knowledge can be modelled with two formal
- A finite set of fundamental principles that
are common to all languages; e.g., that a sentence must
always have a subject,
even if it is not overtly pronounced.
- A finite set of parameters that determine syntactic
variability amongst languages; e.g., a binary parameter
that determines whether or not the subject of a sentence
must be overtly pronounced (this example is sometimes
referred to as the Pro-drop
Within this framework, the goal of linguistics is to
identify all of the principles and parameters that are
universal to human language (called: Universal
Grammar). As such, any attempt to explain the syntax
of a particular language using a principle or parameter
is cross-examined with the evidence available in other
languages. This leads to continual refinement of the theoretical
machinery of generative linguistics in an attempt to account
for as much syntactic variation in human language as possible.
According to this framework, principles and parameters
are part of a genetically innate universal
grammar (UG) which all humans possess, barring any
genetic disorders. As such, principles and parameters
do not need to be learned by exposure to language. Rather,
exposure to language merely triggers the parameters to
adopt the correct setting.
Criticism of principles and parameters has most often
been due to its stance on language acquisition. Although
the framework is accepted by many mainstream linguists,
it is very controversial amongst psychologists,
scientists, and neuroscientists
due to the strong nativism
it espouses in relation to language acquisition. For example,
the developmental psychologist Michael
Tomasello has argued that there is no evidence of
innate linguistic knowledge in the early utterances of
Another source of criticism is the binary nature of parameters
in the framework. For example, the linguist Larry
Trask argues that the ergative
case system of the Basque
language is not a simple binary parameter, and that
different languages can have different levels of ergativity.
The influence of principles and parameters is most apparent
in the works of linguists who subscribe to the Minimalist
Program, Noam Chomsky's most recent contribution to linguistics.
This program of research utilizes conceptions of economy
to enhance the search for universal principles and parameters.
Linguists in this program assume that humans use as economic
a system as possible in their innate syntactic knowledge.
Examples of theorized principles are:
Examples of theorized parameters are:
- Baker, M. (2001). The Atoms of Language: The Mind's
Hidden Rules of Grammar. Basic Bks.
- Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures on Government and
Binding. Mouton de Gruyter.
- Chomsky, N. and Lasnik, H. (1993) Principles and Parameters
Theory, in Syntax: An International Handbook of Contemporary
Research, Berlin: de Gruyter.
- Chomsky, N. (1995) The Minimalist Program (Current
Studies in Linguistics). MIT Press.
- Lightfoot, D. (1982). The Language Lottery: Towards
a Biology of Grammars. MIT Press.
- Musso, M., Moro, A. , Glauche. V., Rijntjes, M., Reichenbach,
J., Büchel, C., Weiller, C. “Broca’s area and the
language instinct,” Nature neuroscience, 2003, vol.6,