The case for an emergentist approach

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Peer-Reviewed Research
  • SDG 11
  • SDG 4
  • Abstract:

    This paper sets out an argument in favour of emergentism as an alternative theoretical paradigm to nativism, arguing that it offers a coherent, evidence-based account of language structure, language acquisition, language evolution, and language change. A number of key tenets of the nativist approach are summarised first, including the nature of the presumed complexity of language, the poverty of the input argument against the learnability of language, the assumption of parsimony, the view of language as innate, biological faculty, and the view of the primary function of language as cognitive representation rather than communication. This is followed by a presentation of the emergentist alternative, which is centred on the notion of the grammatical construction as central unit in the emergentist approach. The properties of constructions, and how they can come into being with recourse to only domain-general cognitive processes, are presented, before the implications of this view for language structure, language acquisition, language evolution and language change are discussed. Additional points of difference with the nativist position are highlighted, including the assumptions of non-parsimonious storage and the centrality of communicative interaction in the ontogenetic and phylogenetic development of language. Throughout the presentation, arguments are illustrated with reference to aspects of complementation in the Germanic languages. The article concludes with a detailed case study of the wh-extraction construction, drawing on an analysis of corpus data from Afrikaans, to demonstrate how the construction-based, emergentist approach leads to an insightful analysis of a well-known construction, without having to make extensive assumptions about the underlying linguistic complexity and the need for innate mechanisms to enable the acquisition of such a complex construction.