In the recent history of linguistics, many ideas have shown great potential as theories of Universal Grammar, only to fall by the wayside when some empirical hurdle seemed unsurmountable. Until recently, Metasyntactic Heuristics appeared to be one such theory, but recent developments indicate that the time is right to reassess it, and explore its potential further.
Metasyntactic Heuristics has its roots in the Japethic theory of Nikolai Marr, revitalized by its applicability to Universal Grammar. It envisages Universal Grammar as consisting of the heuristics that associate higher level semantics with the underlying metasyntactic components of language. It suffered an early setback in the failure of McMosky to detect the predicted correlation between ergativity and head-
Another problem that Metasyntactic Heuristics encountered early on was the apparent intractability of modelling the heuristic processes required by the theory. However, due to recent advances in computational linguistics, it should now be possible to model these processes by means of Neuro-
Metasyntactic Heuristics shows great promise in reconciling the Immediate Experience Principle to Universal Grammar. The IEP arises in Daniel Everett’s analysis of Pirahã grammar in terms of Wittgenstein’s axiom that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” The question arises of how, under the IEP, a hearer can interpret an utterance concerning matters of which he has no immediate experience. It can be seen that under these conditions, the utterance becomes metasyntactic, and must be interpreted heuristically.
At the current rate of progress, we can soon expect Metasyntactic Heuristics to provide us with a Grand Unified Theory which explains all linguistic observations, whether they are correct or not.