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Motivation of Structure in the Evolution of Communication Systems

February 7, 2017 @ 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm

Jonas Nölle, Centre for Language Evolution, School of Philosophy, Psychology & Language Sciences, The University of Edinburgh

Human languages are remarkable symbolic communication systems that have evolved over millennia through learning and use within socially interacting populations. In this talk, I consider the external factors that motivate structure in such communication systems from the moment they are grounded and as they evolve over time. Laboratory experiments are used to illustrate some of the mechanisms that potentially underlie structural properties. This includes non-arbitrary relationships like systematicity and iconicity that have been shown to facilitate category and word learning (see Dingemanse, et al., 2015), morphological complexity. In a series of silent gesture experiments, where participants had to communicate images, we tested, whether  systematicity could emerge in response to pressures such as saliency of traits in a referential environment, the size/openness of the environment and the mode of communication in relation to the environment (displaced vs. immediate). It was found that all these pressures seemed to contribute to the emergence of systematicity although the task strongly afforded for iconic solutions.

A second example is concerned with morphological complexity. Specifically, it was tested whether the emergence of overspecification (of a semantic marker) could be affected by the context in which a language is used. This was tested in an iterated learning study (Kirby, Cornish & Smith, 2008), where cultural transmission of a miniature language was simulated in the lab. The results show that overspecification could indeed emerge more quickly in a context where it reduced the cognitive load (Hartmann, et al., 2016).

Lastly, I will show how linguistic routines that emerge in an existing language used in a joint problem-solving setting likewise respond to affordances and reflect salient properties of the shared task environment in otherwise identical coordinative tasks.

Taken together these laboratory studies suggest that human communication systems are highly adaptive to the environment in which they emerge and continue to be used. Artificial language studies and referential games simulating horizontal interaction and vertical cultural transmission can thus shed light on causal mechanisms contributing to the remarkable diversity that we can observe among the world’s languages (Evans & Levinson, 2009). These studies, therefore lend further support to the recent hypothesis of linguistic adaptation – the idea that languages adapt to their social, technological and physical environment – that has mainly been formed on the basis of large-scale correlational data (see Lupyan & Dale, 2016, for a review).


Dingemanse, M., Blasi, D.E., Lupyan, G., Christiansen, M.H. & Monaghan, P., 2015. Arbitrariness, Iconicity, and Systematicity in Language. Trends Cogn Sci 19, 603-615.

Evans, N., & Levinson, S. C. (2009). The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and brain sciences, 32(05), 429-448.

Hartmann S., Tinits P., Nölle J., Hartmann T. and Pleyer M. (2016). Plain Simple Complex Structures: The Emergence Of Overspecification In An Iterated Learning Setup. In S.G. Roberts, C. Cuskley, L. McCrohon, L. Barceló-Coblijn, O. Fehér & T. Verhoef (eds.) The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th International Conference (EVOLANG11).

Kirby, S., Cornish, H. & Smith, K., 2008. Cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory: an experimental approach to the origins of structure in human language. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 105, 10681-10686.

Lupyan, G., & Dale, R. (2016). Why Are There Different Languages? The Role of Adaptation in Linguistic Diversity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(9), 649-660.


February 7, 2017
5:00 pm - 7:00 pm


NB149, Northumberland Building
Northumbria University
Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom
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