The Emergence of Language

The Emergence of Language

The Emergence of Language

The Emergence of Language


For nearly four centuries, our understanding of human development has been controlled by the debate between nativism and empiricism. Nowhere has the contrast between these apparent alternatives been sharper than in the study of language acquisition. However, as more is learned about the details of language learning, it is found that neither nativism nor empiricism provides guidance about the ways in which complexity arises from the interaction of simpler developmental forces. For example, the child's first guesses about word meanings arise from the interplay between parental guidance, the child's perceptual preferences, and neuronal support for information storage and retrieval. As soon as the shape of the child's lexicon emerges from these more basic forces, an exploration of "emergentism" as a new alternative to nativism and empiricism is ready to begin.

This book presents a series of emergentist accounts of language acquisition. Each case shows how a few simple, basic processes give rise to new levels of language complexity. The aspects of language examined here include auditory representations, phonological and articulatory processes, lexical semantics, ambiguity processing, grammaticality judgment, and sentence comprehension. The approaches that are invoked to account formally for emergent patterns include neural network theory, dynamic systems, linguistic functionalism, construction grammar, optimality theory, and statistically-driven learning. The excitement of this work lies both in the discovery of new emergent patterns and in the integration of theoretical frameworks that can formalize the theory of emergentism.


If you spend time watching the checkout lines at a supermarket, you will find that the number of people queued up in each line stays roughly the same. There are rarely six people in one line and two in the next. There is no socially articulated rule governing this pattern. Instead, the uniformity of this simple social "structure" emerges from other basic facts about the goals and behavior of shoppers and supermarket managers.

Honeybees are certainly no smarter than shoppers. However, working together, bees are able to construct an even more complex structure. When a bee returns to the hive after collecting pollen, she deposits a drop of wax- coated honey. Each of these honey balls is round and approximately the same size. As these balls get packed together, they take on the familiar hexagonal shape that we see in the honeycomb. There is no gene in the bee that codes for hexagonality in the honeycomb, nor is there any overt communication regarding the shaping of the cells of the honeycomb. Rather, this form is an emergent consequence of the application of packing rules to a collection of honey balls of roughly uniform size.

Nature abounds with examples of emergence. The outlines of beaches emerge from interactions between geology and ocean currents. The shapes of crystals emerge from the ways in which atoms can pack into sheets. Weather patterns like the Jet Stream or El Niño emerge from interactions between the rotation of the earth, solar radiation, and the shapes of the ocean bodies. Biological patterns emerge in very similar ways. For example, the shapes of the stripes on a tiger are controlled by the timing of the expression of a pair of competing genes expressing color as they operate across the developing tiger embryo. No single gene directly controls these patterns. Rather, the stripes emerge from the interactions of the genes on the physical surface of the embryo. The shape of the brain is very much the same. For example, Miller, Keller, and Stryker have shown that the ocular . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.