Compositional structure can emerge without generational transmission
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SourceCognition, 182, (2019), pp. 151-164
Article / Letter to editor
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Experimental work in the field of language evolution has shown that novel signal systems become more structured over time. In a recent paper, Kirby, Tamariz, Cornish, and Smith (2015) argued that compositional languages can emerge only when languages are transmitted across multiple generations. In the current paper, we show that compositional languages can emerge in a closed community within a single generation. We conducted a communication experiment in which we tested the emergence of linguistic structure in different micro-societies of four participants, who interacted in alternating dyads using an artificial language to refer to novel meanings. Importantly, the communication included two real-world aspects of language acquisition and use, which introduce compressibility pressures: (a) multiple interaction partners and (b) an expanding meaning space. Our results show that languages become significantly more structured over time, with participants converging on shared, stable, and compositional lexicons. These findings indicate that new learners are not necessary for the formation of linguistic structure within a community, and have implications for related fields such as developing sign languages and creoles.
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