- The evolution of combinatorial phonology
- Journal of Phonetics
- Volume | Issue number
- 37 | 2
- Pages (from-to)
- Document type
- Interfacultary Research Institutes
Faculty of Humanities (FGw)
- Institute for Logic, Language and Computation (ILLC)
Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication (ACLC)
A fundamental, universal property of human language is that its phonology is combinatorial. That is, one can identify a set of basic, distinct units (phonemes, syllables) that can be productively combined in many different ways. In this paper, we develop a methodological framework based on evolutionary game theory for studying the evolutionary transition from holistic to combinatorial signal systems, and use it to evaluate a number of existing models and theories. We find that in all problematic linguistic assumptions are made or crucial components of evolutionary explanations are omitted. We present a novel model to investigate the hypothesis that combinatorial phonology results from optimizing signal systems for perceptual distinctiveness. Our model differs from previous models in three important respects. First, signals are modeled as trajectories through acoustic space; hence, both holistic and combinatorial signals have a temporal structure. Second, acoustic distinctiveness is defined in terms of the probability of confusion. Third, we show a path of ever increasing fitness from unstructured, holistic signals to structured signals that can be analyzed as combinatorial. On this path, every innovation represents an advantage even if no-one else in a population has yet obtained it.
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