Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Matthias Hofer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Title: The cultural emergence of combinatorial structure

Abstract: Cultural symbol systems such as language, music, or pictorial diagrams are crucial for the storage and transmission of knowledge, ultimately underpinning our capacity for cumulative culture. From phonemes in spoken words, to notes in a melody, or the lines of a diagram, one important design feature of such systems is their combinatorial structure: the reuse of building blocks to compose new symbols. In this talk, I present work from three studies that contribute to a broader understanding of how combinatorial systems arise. The first study, using an iterated learning experiment with a virtual slide whistle as signal-transmission modality, shows that communication systems often begin as iconic—using form–meaning mappings based on resemblance rather than conventions—but trend toward the use of combinatorial structure over time. The second study combines iterated learning with a communication game to show that combinatorial structure is not an inevitable feature of symbol systems, but rather a solution to trading off the simplicity of a repertoire of behaviors and the amount of information they convey. The third study presents a neuro-symbolic generative model, which accounts for the structured generalizations demonstrated by humans in the previous two studies, showing that neural network models without appropriate inductive biases fail to produce the same generalizations. Taken together, this work advances our theoretical understanding of why and how combinatorial structure arises, and sheds light on how symbol systems such as language could have become such powerful and flexible tools for communication and human culture.


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Nov 15 2022 -

Language evolution seminar

2022-11-15: The cultural emergence of combinatorial structure

Room 2.12, Appleton Tower, 11 Crichton Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9LE; online via link invitation