Usage context influences the evolution of overspecification in Iterated Learning

Faculty/Professorship: German Linguistics  
Author(s): Tinits, Peeter; Nölle, Jonas; Hartmann, Stefan
Title of the Journal: Journal of language evolution
ISSN: 2058-458X
Publisher Information: Oxford University Press : Oxford
Year of publication: 2017
Volume: 2
Issue: 2
Pages: 148-159
Language(s): English
DOI: 10.1093/jole/lzx011
This article investigates the influence of contextual pressures on the evolution of overspecification, i.e. the degree to which communicatively irrelevant meaning dimensions are specified, in an iterated learning setup. To this end, we combine two lines of research: In artificial language learning studies, it has been shown that (miniature) languages adapt to their contexts of use. In experimental pragmatics, it has been shown that referential overspecification in natural language is more likely to occur in contexts in which the communicatively relevant feature dimensions are harder to discern. We test whether similar functional pressures can promote the cumulative growth of referential overspecification in iterated artificial language learning. Participants were trained on an artificial language which they then used to refer to objects. The output of each participant was used as input for the next participant. The initial language was designed such that it did not show any overspecification, but it allowed for overspecification to emerge in 16 out of 32 usage contexts. Between conditions, we manipulated the referential context in which the target items appear, so that the relative visuospatial complexity of the scene would make the communicatively relevant feature dimensions more difficult to discern in one of them. The artificial languages became overspecified more quickly and to a significantly higher degree in this condition, indicating that the trend toward overspecification was stronger in these contexts, as suggested by experimental pragmatics research. These results add further support to the hypothesis that linguistic conventions can be partly determined by usage context and shows that experimental pragmatics can be fruitfully combined with artificial language learning to offer valuable insights into the mechanisms involved in the evolution of linguistic phenomena.
Keywords: Linguistic complexity, Language evolution, Iterated learning
Peer Reviewed: Ja
International Distribution: Ja
Type: Article
Year of publication: 23. March 2018