What can be learned from usage? BrumLects talk on YouTube

02 Mar 2021

Watch our own Dagmar Divjak present in the series "The Birmingham Lectures: Language Structure & Language Use".

Usage-based linguistics is predicated upon the premise that languages are dynamic systems shaped by usage in a process that is mediated by general cognitive abilities and functional considerations. The general cognitive abilities that have received most attention to date are classification, abstraction and imagination (metaphor, metonymy). Processes or functions that would enable ‘growing’ a system from use have, however, been conspicuously absent from usage-based considerations. In fact, learning constitutes our very own “elephant in the room”. Learning was exiled vigorously from the linguistic landscape by Chomsky’s (1959) criticism of Skinner (1957) and although recent years have seen a resurgence in the interest in learning, it is still to make a full comeback onto the linguistic scene.

Together with the Out of our Minds team I am doing work to redress the balance. In my talk I present some of the work we are doing on aspects of (nominal and verbal) morphology that factor learning in by using computational techniques that implement principles of learning. I argue that allowing what can be learned from input constrain the units and generalisations that linguistic theory allows is one way of honouring the cognitive commitment by which cognitive linguists are bound. Ultimately, such an approach provides valuable insights into the kinds of generalizations or abstractions that can lay claim to cognitive plausibility and may ultimately alter the way in which we think about language.