Iconicity and the emergence of combinatorial structure in language

Tessa Verhoef, Simon Kirby, Bart de Boer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In language, recombination of a discrete set of meaningless building blocks forms an unlimited set of possible utterances. How such combinatorial structure emerged in the evolution of human language is increasingly being studied. It has been shown that it can emerge when languages culturally evolve and adapt to human cognitive biases. How the emergence of combinatorial structure interacts with the existence of holistic iconic form-meaning mappings in a language is still unknown. The experiment presented in this paper studies the role of iconicity and human cognitive learning biases in the emergence of combinatorial structure in artificial whistled languages. Participants learned and reproduced whistled words for novel objects with the use of a slide whistle. Their reproductions were used as input for the next participant, to create transmission chains and simulate cultural transmission. Two conditions were studied: one in which the persistence of iconic form-meaning mappings was possible and one in which this was experimentally made impossible. In both conditions, cultural transmission caused the whistled languages to become more learnable and more structured, but this process was slightly delayed in the first condition. Our findings help to gain insight into when and how words may lose their iconic origins when they become part of an organized linguistic system.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1969-1994
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number8
Early online date26 Dec 2015
Publication statusPublished - 21 Nov 2016


  • cultural evolution
  • cognitive biases
  • iterated learning
  • combinatorial structure
  • iconicity
  • language evolution


Dive into the research topics of 'Iconicity and the emergence of combinatorial structure in language'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this