Last week saw the publication of my latest paper, with co-authors Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith, looking at how languages adapt to their contextual niche (link to the OA version and here’s the original). Here’s the abstract:
It is well established that context plays a fundamental role in how we learn and use language. Here we explore how context links short-term language use with the long-term emergence of different types of language systems. Using an iterated learning model of cultural transmission, the current study experimentally investigates the role of the communicative situation in which an utterance is produced (situational context) and how it influences the emergence of three types of linguistic systems: underspecified languages (where only some dimensions of meaning are encoded linguistically), holistic systems (lacking systematic structure) and systematic languages (consisting of compound signals encoding both category-level and individuating dimensions of meaning). To do this, we set up a discrimination task in a communication game and manipulated whether the feature dimension shape was relevant or not in discriminating between two referents. The experimental languages gradually evolved to encode information relevant to the task of achieving communicative success, given the situational context in which they are learned and used, resulting in the emergence of different linguistic systems. These results suggest language systems adapt to their contextual niche over iterated learning.
Context clearly plays an important role in how we learn and use language. Without this contextual scaffolding, and our inferential capacities, the use of language in everyday interactions would appear highly ambiguous. And even though ambiguous language can and does cause problems (as hilariously highlighted by the ‘What’s a chicken?’ case), it is also considered to be communicatively functional (see Piantadosi et al., 2012). In short: context helps in reducing uncertainty about the intended meaning.
If context is used as a resource in reducing uncertainty, then it might also alter our conception of how an optimal communication system should be structured (e.g., Zipf, 1949). With this in mind, we wanted to investigate the following questions: (i) To what extent does the context influence the encoding of features in the linguistic system? (ii) How does the effect of context work its way into the structure of language? To get at these questions we narrowed our focus to look at the situational context: the immediate communicative environment in which an utterance is situated and how it influences the distinctions a speaker needs to convey.
Of particular relevance here is Silvey, Kirby & Smith (2014): they show that the incorporation of a situational context can change the extent to which an evolving language encodes certain features of referents. Using a pseudo-communicative task, where participants needed to discriminate between a target and a distractor meaning, the authors were able to manipulate which meaning dimensions (shape, colour, and motion) were relevant and irrelevant in conveying the intended meaning. Over successive generations of participants, the languages converged on underspecified systems that encoded the feature dimension which was relevant for discriminating between meanings.
The current work extends upon these findings in two ways: (a) we added a communication element to the setup, and (b) we further explored the types of situational context we could manipulate. Our general hypothesis, then, is that these artificial languages should adapt to the situational context in predictable ways based on whether or not a distinction is relevant in communication.
Continue reading “Languages adapt to their contextual niche (Winters, Kirby & Smith, 2014)”