Journal of Child Language


The poverty of the Mayan stimulus*


a1 University of Kansas – Department of Linguistics


Poverty of the stimulus (POS) arguments have instigated considerable debate in the recent linguistics literature. This article uses the comparative method to challenge the logic of POS arguments. Rather than question the premises of POS arguments, the article demonstrates how POS arguments for individual languages lead to a reductio ad absurdum as POS arguments from genetically related languages are compared. Comparison leads to different contradictions for poverty of the negative stimulus (PONS) and poverty of the positive stimulus (POPS) arguments. Comparing PONS arguments leads to the conclusion that Universal Grammar contains language-specific versions of linguistic rules. Comparing POPS arguments leads to the conclusion that Universal Grammar may supply knowledge that is ungrammatical in the target language. The reductio shows that universal principles of grammar cannot be established on the basis of POS arguments from a single language.

(Received January 10 2010)

(Revised July 29 2010)

(Accepted May 07 2011)

(Online publication August 19 2011)


c1 Address for correspondence: University of Kansas – Department of Linguistics, 1541 Lilac Lane, Lawrence, Kansas 66045, United States. e-mail:


[*] I would like to thank all of my Mayan teachers, students and collaborators who have generously shared their knowledge of the Mayan languages and cultures with me. I owe a special debt to Terrence Kaufman, who first introduced me to the world of Mayan linguistics. I have discussed many of the Mayan details cited in this article with Louanna Furbee, Barbara Pfeiler, Pedro Mateo Pedro, Gilles Polian, Ana Elizabeth Lopez Ramirez, Asunción Lopez Perez and Roberto Zavala. David Ingram, William O'Grady and Geoffry Pullum provided comments on earlier versions of this article. I also thank the two anonymous reviewers and especially the Associate Editor for helping me to clarify the Mayan arguments. I am solely responsible for any remaining errors. This research was funded in part by grants from the National Science Foundation (BCS-0613120 and BCS-0515120) and the University of Kansas.