Context, cognition and communication in language
Winters, James Richard
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Questions pertaining to the unique structure and organisation of language have a long history in the field of linguistics. In recent years, researchers have explored cultural evolutionary explanations, showing how language structure emerges from weak biases amplified over repeated patterns of learning and use. One outstanding issue in these frameworks is accounting for the role of context. In particular, many linguistic phenomena are said to to be context-dependent; interpretation does not take place in a void, and requires enrichment from the current state of the conversation, the physical situation, and common knowledge about the world. Modelling the relationship between language structure and context is therefore crucial for developing a cultural evolutionary approach to language. One approach is to use statistical analyses to investigate large-scale, cross-cultural datasets. However, due to the inherent limitations of statistical analyses, especially with regards to the inadequacy of these methods to test hypotheses about causal relationships, I argue that experiments are better suited to address questions pertaining to language structure and context. From here, I present a series of artificial language experiments, with the central aim being to test how manipulations to context influence the structure and organisation of language. Experiment 1 builds upon previous work in iterated learning and communication games through demonstrating that the emergence of optimal communication systems is contingent on the contexts in which languages are learned and used. The results show that language systems gradually evolve to only encode information that is informative for conveying the intended meaning of the speaker - resulting in markedly different systems of communication. Whereas Experiment 1 focused on how context influences the emergence of structure, Experiments 2 and 3 investigate under what circumstances do manipulations to context result in the loss of structure. While the results are inconclusive across these two experiments, there is tentative evidence that manipulations to context can disrupt structure, but only when interacting with other factors. Lastly, Experiment 4 investigates whether the degree of signal autonomy (the capacity for a signal to be interpreted without recourse to contextual information) is shaped by manipulations to contextual predictability: the extent to which a speaker can estimate and exploit contextual information a hearer uses in interpreting an utterance. When the context is predictable, speakers organise languages to be less autonomous (more context-dependent) through combining linguistic signals with contextual information to reduce effort in production and minimise uncertainty in comprehension. By decreasing contextual predictability, speakers increasingly rely on strategies that promote more autonomous signals, as these signals depend less on contextual information to discriminate between possible meanings. Overall, these experiments provide proof-of-concept for investigating the relationship between language structure and context, showing that the organisational principles underpinning language are the result of competing pressures from context, cognition, and communication.