Language as a complex adaptive system

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Language as a complex adaptive system:

Language has a fundamentally social function. Processes of human interaction along with domain-general cognitive processes shape the structure and knowledge of language. Recent research in the cognitive sciences has demonstrated that patterns of use strongly affect how language is acquired, is used, and changes. These processes are not independent of one another but are facets of the same complex adaptive system (CAS). Language as a CAS involves the following key features:

The system consists of multiple agents (the speakers in the speech community) interacting with one another. The system is adaptive; that is, speakers’ behavior is based on their past interactions, and current and past interactions together feed forward into future behavior. A speaker’s behavior is the consequence of competing factors ranging from perceptual constraints to social motivations. The structures of language emerge from interrelated patterns of experience, social interaction, and cognitive mechanisms. The CAS approach reveals commonalities in many areas of language research, including first and second language acquisition, historical linguistics, psycholinguistics, language evolution, and computational modeling.

Overview of complex adaptive systems

'Complex adaptive systems' refer to numerous types of complex systems characterized by their ability to "change and reorganize their component parts to adapt themselves to the problems posed by their surroundings"[2], exploiting one or more of the many types of adaptation, including Darwinian natural selection. Pioneer elucidator of complex adaptive systems, John Holland, describes them as similar in the sense of having an "evolving structure".[2]

Examples of complex adaptive systems include biological organisms, the immune system, economic systems, ant colonies, ecosystems, developing embryos, developing biological organ systems, computerized virtual species, social systems, the brain in function and development, the stock market, language. In biology, the adaptation of complex adaptive systems refers to adaptation occurring in real-time as well as between generations.

Complex systems comprise systems embedded in and open to their surroundings, the systems comprising hierarchical levels, each level made up of diverse types and numerous tokens of each type of component interconnected and interacting as dynamic networks, each level dependent on those lower in the hierarchy and influenced by those higher, together generating a global entity manifesting emergent properties, properties difficult or impossible to explain by current science. Complex adaptive systems continually self-organize and reconstruct themselves in interactions with the dynamics of their surroundings.

Complex adaptive systems in biology comprise a self-organized system of interacting components (or agents) that can change and learn in an adaptive way, a way that enables them to persist, with modification, through indefinite time, despite changing environmental conditions, in particular conditions that put the system’s endurance at risk.


  1. The “Five Graces Group”: Clay Beckner, Nick C. Ellis, Richard Blythe, John Holland, Joan Bybee, Jinyun Ke, Morten H. Christiansen, Diane Larsen-Freeman, William Croft, Tom Schoenemann. (2009) Language Is a Complex Adaptive System: Position Paper. Language Learning 59:Suppl. 1, December 2009, pp. 1–261. | PDF.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Holland JH. (1992) Complex Adaptive Systems. Daedalus 121(1):17-30. | Clicking on title will download full-text PDF.