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A Usage-based View of Language - LAN00084M

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  • Department: Language and Linguistic Science
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Tamar Keren-Portnoy
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

The module will expose students to the idea that order and structure are possible outcomes of language in use. This view is basic to the usage-based approach to grammar and psycholinguistics, but is neither self-evident nor uncontroversial.

Related modules

Co-requisite modules

  • None

Prohibited combinations

  • None

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

Subject content

  • Students will become familiar with arguments as to what can be concluded from the evidence provided by linguistic structure: Does it reflect the operation of abstract rules or a preordained plan for the unfolding of structure or can it be seen as the product of learning from use?
  • Students will appreciate the power of various constraints on the shaping of linguistic structures – e.g., memory, frequency of use, rate of speech, conversational interaction.

Academic and generic skills

  • Students will gain a new perspective for understanding the origins of complex and patterned human behaviours, such as language.
  • Students will engage in class discussions and will be expected to take part in class discussions and debates.
  • Students will learn to think critically and to argue their point of view.

Module learning outcomes

At the end of the module students should be aware of the existence of different points of view or different perspectives regarding the origins and nature of linguistic structure. They should be able to understand the fact that experts do not always agree amongst themselves, and that what is taught at university isn't always 'the truth', but may be one of several possible interpretations of 'the truth'.

Students will also, by the end of the module, have developed their argumentation and critical thinking skills.

Module content

The module will icover the following topics (or similar):

Introduction to embodiment and cognition

Criticism of innatist and cognitivist perspectives



Language change & the linguistic system

Emergence of new languages

Emergence of structure in the lab

Other views of language evolution


Task Length % of module mark
5000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

There will be a shorter formative essay to be submitted in week 7 of Spring Term.


Task Length % of module mark
5000 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Students will receive written feedback within 20 working days of submission.

Indicative reading

Text to be used may include (but will not be limited to):

Blevins, J. (2006). A theoretical synopsis of Evolutionary Phonology. Theoretical linguistics, 32(2), 117-166.

Bybee, J. (2001). Phonology and language use. Cambridge University Press.

Bybee, J. (2010). Language, usage and cognition. Cambridge University Press .

Evans, N. & S. C. Levinson (2009) The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32, 429–492. 

Foulkes, P. & Vihman, M. (2013). First language acquisition and phonological change. In: P. Honeybone & J. Salmons (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of historical phonology (pp. xxx). Oxford: OUP.

Foulkes, P. & J. B. Hay (2015). The emergence of sociophonetic structure. In: B. MacWhinney & W. O’Grady (Eds.), The handbook of language emergence (pp. 292-313). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Galantucci, B. (2005). An experimental study of the emergence of human communication systems. Cognitive Science, 29, 737-767.

Gentner, D. & Markman, A. B. (1997). Structure mapping in analogy and similarity, American Psychologist, 52, 45-56.

Haspelmath, M. & Sims, A. D. (2010). Understanding Morphology (2nd ed.). London: Routledge

Hauser, M. D., Chomsky, N. & Fitch, W. T. (2002). The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science, 298, 1569-1579.

Johnson, M. H. (2011). Developmental neuroscience, psychophysiology, and genetics. In: M. H. Bornstein & M. E. Lamb, (Eds.), Cognitive development: An advanced textbook (pp. 217-257). New York: Psychology Press.

Kirby, S., Cornish, H., & Smith, K. (2008). Cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory: an experimental approach to the origins of structure in human language. PNAS, 105, 10681-10686.

Pierrehumbert, J. (2003). Phonetic diversity, statistical learning, and acquisition of phonology. Language and Speech, 46, 115-154.

Pierrehumbert, J. (2016). Phonological representation: Beyond abstract versus episodic. Annual Review of linguistics 2, 33-52.

Shibatani, M. (1996). Applicatives and benefactives: A cognitive account. In: M. Shibatani & S. A. Thompson (Eds.), Grammatical constructions: Their form and meaning (pp. 157-194). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thelen, E. & Smith, L. B. (1994). A Dynamic Systems approach to the development of cognition and action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Thomason, S. (2008). Pidgins/Creoles and historical linguistics. In S. Kouwenberg & J. V. Singler (Eds). The handbook of pidgin and creole studies (pp.242-262). Wiley-Blackwell. 

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.