Simplifying linguistic complexity: culture and cognition in language evolution
Saldana, Carmen Catalina
Languages are culturally transmitted through a repeated cycle of learning and communicative interaction. These two aspects of cultural transmission impose (at least) three interacting pressures that can shape the evolution of linguistic structure: a pressure for learnability, a pressure for expressivity, and a pressure for coordination amongst users in a linguistic community. This thesis considers how these sometimes competing pressures impact linguistic complexity across cultural time. Using artificial language and iterated learning experimental paradigms, I investigate the conditions under which complexity in morphological and syntactic systems emerges, spreads, and reduces. These experiments illustrate the interaction of transmission, learning and use in hitherto understudied domains—morphosyntax and word order. In a first study (Chapter 2), I report the first iterated learning experiments to investigate the evolution of complexity in compositional structure at the word and sentence level. I demonstrate that a complex meaning space paired with pressures for learnability and communication can result in compositional hierarchical constituent structure, including fixed combinatorial rules of word formation and word order. This structure grants a productive and productively interpretable language and only requires learners to acquire a finite lexicon and a finite set of combinatorial rules (i.e., a grammar). In Chapter 3, I address the unique effect of communicative interaction on linguistic complexity, by removing language learning completely. Speakers use their native language to express novel meanings either in isolation or during communicative interaction. I demonstrate that even in this case, communicative interaction leads to more efficient and overall simpler linguistic systems. These first two studies provide support for the claim that morphological and syntactic complexity are shaped by an overarching drive towards simplicity (or learnability) in language learning and communication. Chapter 4 reports a series of experiments assessing the possibility that the simplicity bias found in the first two studies operates at a different strength depending on the linguistic level. Studies in natural language learning and in pidgin/creole genesis suggest that while morphological variation seems to be highly susceptible to regularisation, variation in other syntactic features, like word order, appears more likely to be reproduced. I test this experimentally by comparing regularisation of unconditioned variation across morphology and word order in the context of artificial language learning. I show that language users in fact regularise unconditioned variation in a similar way across linguistic levels, suggesting that the simplicity bias may be driven by a single, non-level-specific mechanism. Taken together, the experimental evidence presented in this thesis supports the hypothesis that the cultural and cognitive pressures acting on language users during learning and communicative interaction—for learnability, expressivity and coordination—are at least partially responsible for the evolution of linguistic complexity. Specifically, they are responsible for the emergence of linguistic complexity which maximises learnability and communicative efficiency, and for the reduction of complexity which does not. More generally, the approach taken in this thesis promotes a view of complexity in linguistic systems as an evolving variable determined by the biases of language learners and users as languages are culturally transmitted.