The evolution of vocabulary

Smith, Kenny (2004) The evolution of vocabulary. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 228 (1). pp. 127-142. ISSN 0022-5193

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Human language is unique among the communication systems of the natural world. The vocabulary of human language is unique in being both culturally transmitted and symbolic. In this paper I present an investigation into the factors involved in the evolution of such vocabulary systems. I investigate both the cultural evolution of vocabulary systems and the biological evolution of learning rules for vocabulary acquisition. Firstly, vocabularies are shown to evolve on a cultural time-scale so as to fit the expectations of learners—a population's vocabulary adapts to the biases of the learners in that population. A learning bias in favour of one-to-one mappings between meanings and words leads to the cultural evolution of communicatively optimal vocabulary systems, even in the absence of any explicit pressure for communication. Furthermore, the pressure to conform to the biases of learners is shown to outweigh natural selection acting on cultural transmission. Human language learners appear to bring a one-to-one bias to the acquisition of vocabulary systems. The functionality of human vocabulary may therefore be a consequence of the biases of human language learners. Secondly, the evolutionary stability of genetically transmitted vocabulary learning biases is investigated using both static and dynamic models. A one-to-one learning bias, which leads to the cultural evolution of optimal communication, is shown to be evolutionarily stable. However, the evolution de novo of this bias is complicated by the cumulative nature of the cultural evolution of vocabulary systems. This suggests that the biases of human language learners may not have evolved specifically and exclusively for the acquisition of communicatively functional vocabulary.

Item Type: Article
Subjects: C100 Biology
Department: Faculties > Health and Life Sciences > Psychology
Depositing User: EPrint Services
Date Deposited: 17 Dec 2008 12:06
Last Modified: 12 Oct 2019 16:27

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