Meaningful mistakes in language behaviour [...]

1 • Modelling the replication dynamics of language

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When talking to each other, we are not only influencing people’s minds through verbal behaviour. While performing all sorts of speech acts we also learn and maintain the structure of the linguistic behavioural patterns (Tamariz, 2014) we perceive. As recognised long ago, by the 19th-century German linguist Georg von der Gabelentz ([1891] 1901), these fundamental twofold nature of language gives rise to a pair of competing forces of grammaticalization, which actually balance each other out. Those two forces are:

  • the pressure for maximising the expressivity of utterances (Gabelentz’ Deutlichkeitstrieb) and
  • the pressure for optimising their learnability (Bequemlichkeitstrieb)

Since than the two motivations were dubbed in many ways like, for instance, economy vs. clarity, efficiency vs. effectiveness, force of unification vs. force of diversification, and so on.

Quite recently, the interdependence of these two adaptive pressures was identified and plausibly illustrated in simulations conducted within the Iterated Learning methodology for modelling the dynamics of cultural transmission of linguistic structure. The crucial observation here is that, as Kirby et al. (2004:593) put it:

„The linguistic behaviour that an individual exhibits is both a result of exposure to the behaviour of others and a source of data that other learners may be exposed to.”

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The diagram on the right (adapted from Fig. 1 in Brighton et al., 2005:185) shows the basic methodological assumption used for modelling the process of cultural transmission of language: with Agent 1 we have an individual who already has some hypothesis h1 about the grammatical regularities of collective language resources of some kind L(h1). By using verbal expressions in communicative episodes he provides examples of linguistic behavioural patterns, on the base of which other people induce and generalise their own hypotheses hn about the grammar of that language. In this way the language resources L(hn) are transmitted culturally from one generation to the next in an iterative process of learning from data provided by other people who themselves have learned the language in the same way.

The second fundamental assumption of this research is related to the ontology of language itself. Drawing on ideas presented in Hurford’s paper (1989), which refers explicitly to the Saussurean account of signification, the Iterated Learning Model takes for granted the assumption of the code-like nature of conventionalised linguistic signs.


by Arkadiusz Jasiński
published on: 26.09.2015

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  • Brighton, H., Smith, K. & Kirby, S. (2005). Language as an evolutionary system. Physics of Life Reviews 2(3), 177–226.
  • Hurford, J. (1989). Biological evolution of the Saussurean sign as a component of the language acquisition device. Lingua 77(2), 187–222.
  • Kirby, S., Smith, K. & Brighton, H. (2004). From UG to universals: linguistic adaptation through iterated learning. Studies in Language 28(3), 587–607.
  • Tamariz, M. (2014). Experiments and Simulations Can Inform Evolutionary Theories of the Cultural Evolution of Language. In: Pina, M. & Gontier, N. (ed.), The Evolution of Social Communication in Primates. A Multidisciplinary Approach. New York: Springer, 249–288.
  • von der Gabelentz, G. ([1891] 1901). Die Sprachwissenschaft, ihre Aufgaben, Methoden und bisherigen Ergebnisse. Leipzig: C. H. Tauchnitz.