Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 5, pp 615–637 | Cite as

Grammar as a developmental phenomenon

  • Guy Dove


More and more researchers are examining grammar acquisition from theoretical perspectives that treat it as an emergent phenomenon. In this essay, I argue that a robustly developmental perspective provides a potential explanation for some of the well-known crosslinguistic features of early child language: the process of acquisition is shaped in part by the developmental constraints embodied in von Baer’s law of development. An established model of development, the Developmental Lock, captures and elucidates the probabilistic generalizations at the heart of von Baer’s law. When this model is applied to the acquisition of grammar, it predicts that grammatical achievements that are more generatively entrenched will emerge earlier in development and will be more developmentally resilient than those that are less generatively entrenched. I show that the first prediction is supported by a wealth of psycholinguistic evidence involving typically developing children and that the second prediction is supported by numerous studies involving both children who receive deficient linguistic input and children who experience various language impairments. The success of this model demonstrates the analytic potential of a developmental approach to the study of language acquisition.


Development Generative entrenchment Grammar Innateness Language acquisition Syntax 



I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers, Bill Bechtel, Cara Cashon, Fiona Cowie, Jesse Prinz, Kim Stelreny, and William Wimsatt for comments on the manuscript during various stages of its development.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of LouisvilleLouisvilleUSA

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