Contextual predictability shapes signal autonomy

J. Winters, S. Kirby, K. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aligning on a shared system of communication requires senders and receivers reach a balance between simplicity, where there is a pressure for compressed representations, and informativeness, where there is a pressure to be communicatively functional. We investigate the extent to which these two pressures are governed by contextual predictability: the amount of contextual information that a sender can estimate, and therefore exploit, in conveying their intended meaning. In particular, we test the claim that contextual predictability is causally related to signal autonomy: the degree to which a signal can be interpreted in isolation, without recourse to contextual information. Using an asymmetric communication game, where senders and receivers are assigned fixed roles, we manipulate two aspects of the referential context: (i) whether or not a sender shares access to the immediate contextual information used by the receiver in interpreting their utterance; (ii) the extent to which the relevant solution in the immediate referential context is generalisable to the aggregate set of contexts. Our results demonstrate that contextual predictability shapes the degree of signal autonomy: when the context is highly predictable (i.e., the sender has access to the context in which their utterances will be interpreted, and the semantic dimension which discriminates between meanings in context is consistent across communicative episodes), languages develop which rely heavily on the context to reduce uncertainty about the intended meaning. When the context is less predictable, senders favour systems composed of autonomous signals, where all potentially relevant semantic dimensions are explicitly encoded. Taken together, these results suggest that our pragmatic faculty, and how it integrates information from the context in reducing uncertainty, plays a central role in shaping language structure.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-30
Number of pages16
Early online date10 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018


  • communication games
  • context
  • interaction
  • language evolution
  • pragmatics


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