The cultural evolution of structured languages in an open-ended, continuous world

Jon Carr, Kenneth Smith, Hannah Cornish, Simon Kirby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Language maps signals onto meanings through the use of two distinct types of structure. First, the space of meanings is discretized into categories that are shared by all users of the language. Second, the signals employed by the language are compositional: The meaning of the whole is a function of its parts and the way in which those parts are combined. In three iterated learning experiments using a vast, continuous, open-ended meaning space, we explore the conditions under which both structured categories and structured signals emerge ex nihilo. While previous experiments have been limited to either categorical structure in meanings or compositional structure in signals, these experiments demonstrate that when the meaning space lacks clear preexisting boundaries, more subtle morphological structure that lacks straightforward compositionality—as found in natural languages—may evolve as a solution to joint pressures from learning and communication.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCognitive Science
Early online date7 Apr 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Apr 2016


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