In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Innateness

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Glossaries
  • Handbooks and Edited Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Non-Nativist Approaches in Psycholinguistics

Linguistics Innateness
Yarden Kedar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0071


The concept of innateness (innate is first recorded in the period 1375–1425; from Latin innātus “inborn”) relates to types of behavior and knowledge that are present in the organism since birth (in fact, since fertilization), prior to any sensory experience with the environment. The term has been applied to two general types of qualities. The first consists of instinctive and inflexible reflexes and behaviors, which are apparent in survival, mating, and rearing activities. The other relates to cognition, with certain concepts, ideas, propositions, and particular ways of mental computation suggested to be part of one’s biological makeup. While both types of innatism have a long history in human philosophy and science (e.g., Plato and Descartes), some bias appears to exist in favor of claims for inherent behavioral traits, which are typically accepted when satisfactory empirical evidence is provided. One famous example is Lorenz’s demonstration of imprinting, a natural phenomenon that obeys a predetermined mechanism and schedule (Lorenz’s incubator-hatched goslings imprinted on his boots, the first moving object they encountered). Likewise, there seems to be little controversy in regard to predetermined ways of organizing sensory information, as is the case with the detection and classification of shapes and colors by the mind. In contrast, the idea that certain types of abstract knowledge may be part of an organism’s biological endowment (i.e., not learned) is typically faced with a greater sense of skepticism, and touches on a fundamental question in epistemological philosophy: Can reason be based (to a certain extent) on a priori knowledge—that is, knowledge that precedes and is independent of experience? The most influential and controversial claim for such innate knowledge in modern science is Chomsky’s breakthrough nativist theory of Universal Grammar in language and the famous “argument from the poverty of the stimulus.” The main Chomskyan hypothesis is that all human beings share a preprogrammed linguistic infrastructure consisting of a finite collection of rules, which in principle may generate (through combination or transformation) an infinite number of (only) grammatical sentences. Thus the innate grammatical system constrains and structures the acquisition and use of all natural languages.


Several textbooks are relevant to the concept of innateness and its use in the theoretical and empirical psycholinguistic literature. However, in most cases these resources do not address innateness per se but rather as part of another topic. Some leading textbooks include Levitin 2010 on cognitive psychology, Sigelman and Rider 2008 on human development, and Bornstein and Lamb 2011 on developmental psychology. A comprehensive neuroscience perspective is given in Gazzaniga 2009. The following textbooks focus on the acquisition of language, with specific reference to innate factors that influence this developmental process: Berko Gleason and Bernstein Ratner 2012, with special attention given to language disorders and new findings on the brain and language; Clark 2009, which presents a clear argument against an assumption of innate and language-specific mechanisms in the acquisition process; Lust 2006, taking a generative approach, with many mentions of the innateness question in psycholinguistics; and Saxton 2010, emphasizing the importance of the nature-nurture debate in the cognitive and language sciences.

  • Berko Gleason, Jean, and Nan Bernstein Ratner, eds. 2012. The development of language. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson Education.

    Covers language change through the entire life span, including the aging process. Details the development of each of the main components of language (syntax, morphology, semantics, phonology, and pragmatics).

  • Bornstein, M. H., and M. E. Lamb, eds. 2011. Cognitive development: An advanced textbook. New York: Psychology Press.

    An essential textbook by two prominent scholars in developmental science, which surveys contemporary theories, methods, and empirical findings in the field, including a specific section on language.

  • Clark, E. V. 2009. First language acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511806698

    Presents a stage-based, bottom-up, learning view on language development in monolingual and bilingual children. Addresses language comprehension and use from preverbal stages to advanced competencies such as debating, instructing, and storytelling.

  • Gazzaniga, M. 2009. The cognitive neurosciences. 4th ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    An extensive resource edited by one of the most knowledgeable scholars in cognitive neuroscience. Discusses and gives examples of the effect of brain structures and functions on behavior in many respects, including language.

  • Levitin, D. J. 2010. Foundations of cognitive psychology: Core readings. 2d ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

    A comprehensive yet entertaining overview of cognitive psychology. Addresses some aspects of cognition that are not typically discussed in introductory works, most notably the relation between music and cognition.

  • Lust, B. 2006. Child language: Acquisition and growth. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511803413

    A most valuable overview of past and present works in the study of child language. An excellent resource for both novices and experts in the field.

  • Saxton, M. 2010. Child language: Acquisition and development. London: SAGE.

    Written mainly for psychology students and does not assume prior linguistic background. Calls for a middle-ground approach in the nature-nurture debate in regard to language.

  • Sigelman, C. K., and E. A. Rider. 2008. Life-span human development. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

    Covers the human life span from infancy to adulthood. Includes special sections on cognition, with a focus on the complexity of nature and nurture interactions in development.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.