Sabbagh & Gelman (S&G) present an insightful criticism of the emergentist
approach to language acquisition. The analysis takes as its starting point an
expressed frustration with the fact that emergentism is not packaged as a
single theory or formalism. As a result, S&G decide to focus their critical
attention on a particularly strong version of emergentism in which, ‘only
domain-general tools are required to account for language development.’
This strong formulation of the emergentist position matches up well with the
disembodied connectionism of the 1980s (Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986).
However, it misrepresents the richer expressions of emergentism being
developed by the authors of this volume. In particular, this ‘strong’ version
fails to properly appreciate the degree to which emergentists view cognition
as grounded on the body, the brain, and the social situation.
Consider a simple example from phonological development. There is a
universal tendency to avoid sequences of nasal consonants followed by
voiceless obstruents, as might arise in forms like ‘manpower.’ This constraint
is grounded on the facts of speech production (Huffman, 1993) and figures
prominently in recent elaborations of Optimality Theory (Kager, 1999).
Languages use at least five phonological processes to deal with this problem.
These processes include nasal substitution, post-nasal voicing,
denasalization, nasal deletion, and vowel epenthesis. Initially, children may
apply a variety of these processes (Bernhardt & Stemberger, 1998). Which
processes are preserved and which are dropped out will depend on the shape
of the target language, whether it be Indonesian, Quechua, Toba Batak,
English, or Kelantan Malay. In the terms used by S&G, each of these
phonological processes is a small emergentist ‘buzzsaw’ cutting patterns that
are shaped not by some innate cognitive ‘blueprint,’ but by the emergent
facts of articulatory phonology.