Emergence of Communication and Language

pp 253-267

The Evolution of Meaning-Space Structure through Iterated Learning

  • Simon KirbyAffiliated withLanguage Evolution and Computation Research Unit, University of Edinburgh

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One of the most striking aspects of human linguistic communication is its extensive use of compositionality to convey meaning. When expressing a complex meaning, we tend to use signals whose structure reflects the structure of the meaning to some degree. This property is the foundation upon which the syntax of language is built. It is natural, therefore, that an evolutionary account of human language should contrast compositional communication with a non-compositional, holistic alternative where whole signals map onto whole meanings in an arbitrary, unstructured way. Indeed, Wray (1998) has argued that holistic communication (which is still in evidence in particular contexts today) can be seen as a living fossil of an earlier completely non-compositional protolanguage.