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Developmental Linguistics

  Developmental linguistics provides a reaction against the otherwise enormously influential distinction, drawn by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 - 1913), between synchronic and diachronic approaches to language. In the 19th century, linguistic science was predominantly diachronic in orientation: concerned with explaining how languages evolve over time. A synchronic approach, on the other hand, stresses that for the native speakers of a language, the history of the language is irrelevant. If we examine a language at a particular point in time, it can be regarded as a self-contained system which can be analysed in isolation from the historical processes which shaped it. In fact, the synchronic approach advocated by Saussure has in this century become by far the dominant paradigm in linguistic research.

In the 1970s and 1980s, developmentalists began to challenge the heavy bias towards synchronic linguistics, because it presents an artificial view of languages as static phenomena. Dynamic processes of language change are only accommodated with the contrived notion of a series of discrete linguistic systems placed one after the other like beads on a string. For developmentalists, though, languages exhibit great variety and are subject to numerous forces of change which will be missed by a purely synchronic approach. Hence, developmental linguistics focuses on the manifold processes of growth and change which help explain how a language came to be the way it is. First and second language acquisition, creolization, language change and dialectal variation are therefore of particular relevance. A natural outcome of this approach is the rejection of the view that linguistic science constitutes an autonomous discipline. It is believed that evidence from other fields of enquiry, including neurology, anatomy, social history and anthropology, are of direct relevance for an explanation of how languages evolve.

A weak version of developmentalist theory would assert that static models of language are incomplete, since they do not accommodate processes of language change and variation. A strong version would argue that static, synchronic models totally misrepresent the intrinsically dynamic nature of language. In both cases, it is suggested that languages maintain a balance between the shaping influences of both socio-communicational and neurobiological factors. The socio-communicational aspects of language arise from numerous social variables, including social status, gender, ethnicity, discourse structure and pragmatic context, to create so-called abnatural developments. The neuro-biological aspects of language, on the other hand, stem from the genetic endowment of the human species and determine so-called connatural developments. The notion of naturalness in language is often invoked to explain connatural developments, with the suggestion that some linguistic features are closer to the prototypical nature of language than others. Languages will clearly differ in terms of their proximity to the prototype in certain specified domains. As a result, the members of a linguistic category can be placed on a scale of markedness, with those closest to the prototype being described as unmarked. Developmentalists, therefore, reject the orthodox view that all linguistic systems are equivalent in terms of the communicative resources they offer their speakers; in principle, one language can be judged better than another for certain purposes. MS

See also comparative-historical linguistics; descriptivist linguistics; dialectology; generative grammar; pidgin and creole linguistics; psycholinguistics; structuralism; transformational grammar.Further reading C-J Bailey, On the Yin and Yang Nature of Language.



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