Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 16: 41–59, 2003.
© 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Phonology: An emergent consequence of memory constraints and
Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
Abstract. This paper presents a theoretical model that attempts to account for the early
stages of language acquisition in terms of interaction between biological constraints and
input characteristics. The model uses the implications of stochastic representations of the
sensory input in a volatile and limited memory. It is argued that phonological structure
is a consequence of limited memory resources under the pressure of ecologically relevant
Key words: Emergent phonology, Language acquisition, Self-organizing processes
Speech communication is probably the most complex natural communication
system that humans possess. However, while recognizing the complexity of
the process, one is at the same time struck by the apparent ease with which
children develop the speech communication ability and the adults’ efﬁciency
in using speech to communicate with each other. In the face of the puzzling
discrepancy between the complex structure of the speech communication
process and the spontaneous character of the language acquisition process,
the notion that language was an innate human capacity emerged in the 1960s
as a reaction to the strict behaviorist suggestion that language acquisition
might be explained in terms of stimulus-response mechanisms.
Nevertheless, whereas language is apparently a human activity that is
unparalleled in other species, dismissing language acquisition from the
linguistic agenda with the assumption that language is an innate human
capacity (Chomsky, 1975) probably does not do justice to the explanatory
power that biological and ecological factors may bring into the debate of the
language acquisition issue. Therefore, the current paper sketches a model of
the early stages of the language acquisition process, which, albeit crudely,
attempts to draw attention to how elementary, “purposeless” events may,
in time, lead to emergent structures that are mainly determined by the
constraints of the learning system itself, and its environment.