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Compositionality, Hierarchy and Recursion in Language. A Case Study in Fluid Construction Grammar

vrijdag, 26 oktober, 2007 - 17:00
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
Faculteit: Science and Bio-engineering Sciences
Joachim De Beule

In this thesis it is argued that a number of universal features of human lan-
guages can be explained as being emergent properties of the complex dynamics
governing the establishment and evolution of a language in a population of in-
terlocutors on an inter-generational time scale, rather than being the result of
a genetic selection process leading to a specialized language faculty that im-
poses those features upon language or than being a cross-generational cultural

In particular, I will focus on compositionality, hierarchy and recursion, gen-
erally acknowledged to be universal features of human languages. Together, by
combining words into hierarchical phrases which can then recursively be com-
bined into larger phrases, they allow the construction of an unlimited number
of sentences using only a limited number of words.

There have been two major hypothesis about why all languages share these
features: nativism and iterated learning. Unfortunately, in recent years, the evi-
dence for humans possessing a unique and genetically encoded faculty dedicated
to language has become increasingly small. The iterated learning hypothesis is
also unsatisfactory, mainly because it neglects to see language as a complex
adaptive system that is being shaped by language users as they are attempting
to communicate.

It is argued that the mere urge for successful communication can explain
why language becomes compositional, hierarchical and recursive: because these
features allow the re-use of already acquired bits of language which in turn
increases the chance that at least part of the message is conveyed. To support
this claim, an experiment is presented in wich a number of artificial agents
bootstrap a communication system. It is shown that although the agents are
not innately wired or biased towards recursive language and without any flow
in the population, compositional and recursive language indeed can emerge.