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      Simplicity and Specificity in Language: Domain-General Biases Have Domain-Specific Effects

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          The extent to which the linguistic system—its architecture, the representations it operates on, the constraints it is subject to—is specific to language has broad implications for cognitive science and its relation to evolutionary biology. Importantly, a given property of the linguistic system can be “specific” to the domain of language in several ways. For example, if the property evolved by natural selection under the pressure of the linguistic function it serves then the property is domain-specific in the sense that its design is tailored for language. Equally though, if that property evolved to serve a different function or if that property is domain-general, it may nevertheless interact with the linguistic system in a way that is unique. This gives a second sense in which a property can be thought of as specific to language. An evolutionary approach to the language faculty might at first blush appear to favor domain-specificity in the first sense, with individual properties of the language faculty being specifically linguistic adaptations. However, we argue that interactions between learning, culture, and biological evolution mean any domain-specific adaptations that evolve will take the form of weak biases rather than hard constraints. Turning to the latter sense of domain-specificity, we highlight a very general bias, simplicity, which operates widely in cognition and yet interacts with linguistic representations in domain-specific ways.

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          Most cited references 54

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          An Introduction to Kolmogorov Complexity and Its Applications

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            The Evolution of Language

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              Compression and communication in the cultural evolution of linguistic structure.

              Language exhibits striking systematic structure. Words are composed of combinations of reusable sounds, and those words in turn are combined to form complex sentences. These properties make language unique among natural communication systems and enable our species to convey an open-ended set of messages. We provide a cultural evolutionary account of the origins of this structure. We show, using simulations of rational learners and laboratory experiments, that structure arises from a trade-off between pressures for compressibility (imposed during learning) and expressivity (imposed during communication). We further demonstrate that the relative strength of these two pressures can be varied in different social contexts, leading to novel predictions about the emergence of structured behaviour in the wild.

                Author and article information

                Front Psychol
                Front Psychol
                Front. Psychol.
                Frontiers in Psychology
                Frontiers Media S.A.
                12 January 2016
                : 6
                Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit, Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh Edinburgh, UK
                Author notes

                Edited by: N. J. Enfield, University of Sydney, Australia

                Reviewed by: Carla Hudson Kam, University of British Columbia, Canada; Maryia Fedzechkina, University of Pennsylvania, USA

                *Correspondence: Jennifer Culbertson jennifer.culbertson@ 123456ed.ac.uk

                This article was submitted to Language Sciences, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology

                Copyright © 2016 Culbertson and Kirby.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

                Page count
                Figures: 6, Tables: 0, Equations: 2, References: 83, Pages: 11, Words: 9411


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