Experimental Semiotics (ES) is a burgeoning new discipline aimed at investigating in the laboratory the development of novel forms of human communication. Conceptually connected to experimental research on language use, ES provides a scientific complement to field studies of spontaneously emerging new languages and studies on the emergence of communication systems among artificial agents. ES researchers have created quite a few research paradigms to investigate the development of novel forms of human communication. Despite their diversity, these paradigms all rely on the use of semiotic games, that is, games in which people can succeed reliably only after they have developed novel communication systems. Some of these games involve creating novel signs for pre-specified meanings. These games are particularly suitable for studying relatively large communication systems and their structural properties. Other semiotic games involve establishing shared meanings as well as novel signs to communicate about them. These games are typically rather challenging and are particularly suitable for investigating the processes through which novel forms of communication are created. Considering that ES is a methodological stance rather than a well-defined research theme, researchers have used it to address a greatly heterogeneous set of research questions. Despite this, and despite the recent origins of ES, two of these questions have begun to coalesce into relatively coherent research themes. The first theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to acquire features that are similar to key features of natural language. Most notably, they tend (a) to rely on the use of symbols—that is purely conventional signs—and (b) to adopt a combinatorial design, using a few basic units to express a large number of meanings. ES researchers have begun investigating some of the factors that lead to the acquisition of such features. These investigations suggest two conclusions. The first is that the emergence of symbols depends on the fact that, when repeatedly using non-symbolic signs, people tend to progressively abstract them. The second conclusion is that novel communication systems tend to adopt a combinatorial design more readily when their signs have low degrees of motivation and fade rapidly. The second research theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to begin systematically with motivated—that is non-symbolic—signs. ES investigations of this tendency suggest that it occurs because motivation helps people bootstrap novel forms of communication. Put it another way, these investigations show that it is very difficult for people to bootstrap communication through arbitrary signs.
Basilio Calderone and Vito Pirrelli
Nowadays, computer models of human language are instrumental to millions of people, who use them every day with little if any awareness of their existence and role. Their exponential development has had a huge impact on daily life through practical applications like machine translation or automated dialogue systems. It has also deeply affected the way we think about language as an object of scientific inquiry. Computer modeling of Romance languages has helped scholars develop new theoretical frameworks and new ways of looking at traditional approaches. In particular, computer modeling of lexical phenomena has had a profound influence on some fundamental issues in human language processing, such as the purported dichotomy between rules and exceptions, or grammar and lexicon, the inherently probabilistic nature of speakers’ perception of analogy and word internal structure, and their ability to generalize to novel items from attested evidence. Although it is probably premature to anticipate and assess the prospects of these models, their current impact on language research can hardly be overestimated. In a few years, data-driven assessment of theoretical models is expected to play an irreplaceable role in pacing progress in all branches of language sciences, from typological and pragmatic approaches to cognitive and formal ones.
Throughout the 20th century, structuralist and generative linguists have argued that the study of the language system (langue, competence) must be separated from the study of language use (parole, performance), but this view of language has been called into question by usage-based linguists who have argued that the structure and organization of a speaker’s linguistic knowledge is the product of language use or performance. On this account, language is seen as a dynamic system of fluid categories and flexible constraints that are constantly restructured and reorganized under the pressure of domain-general cognitive processes that are not only involved in the use of language but also in other cognitive phenomena such as vision and (joint) attention. The general goal of usage-based linguistics is to develop a framework for the analysis of the emergence of linguistic structure and meaning. In order to understand the dynamics of the language system, usage-based linguists study how languages evolve, both in history and language acquisition. One aspect that plays an important role in this approach is frequency of occurrence. As frequency strengthens the representation of linguistic elements in memory, it facilitates the activation and processing of words, categories, and constructions, which in turn can have long-lasting effects on the development and organization of the linguistic system. A second aspect that has been very prominent in the usage-based study of grammar concerns the relationship between lexical and structural knowledge. Since abstract representations of linguistic structure are derived from language users’ experience with concrete linguistic tokens, grammatical patterns are generally associated with particular lexical expressions.
The word accent system of Tokyo Japanese might look quite complex with a number of accent patterns and rules. However, recent research has shown that it is not as complex as has been assumed if one incorporates the notion of markedness into the analysis: nouns have only two productive accent patterns, the antepenultimate and the unaccented pattern, and different accent rules can be generalized if one focuses on these two productive accent patterns. The word accent system raises some new interesting issues. One of them concerns the fact that a majority of nouns are ‘unaccented,’ that is, they are pronounced with a rather flat pitch pattern, apparently violating the principle of obligatoriness. A careful analysis of noun accentuation reveals that this strange accent pattern occurs in some linguistically predictable structures. In morphologically simplex nouns, it typically tends to emerge in four-mora nouns ending in a sequence of light syllables. In compound nouns, on the other hand, it emerges due to multiple factors, such as compound-final deaccenting morphemes, deaccenting pseudo-morphemes, and some types of prosodic configurations. Japanese pitch accent exhibits an interesting aspect in its interactions with other phonological and linguistic structures. For example, the accent of compound nouns is closely related with rendaku, or sequential voicing; the choice between the accented and unaccented patterns in certain types of compound nouns correlates with the presence or absence of the sequential voicing. Moreover, whether the compound accent rule applies to a certain compound depends on its internal morphosyntactic configuration as well as its meaning; alternatively, the compound accent rule is blocked in certain types of morphosyntactic and semantic structures. Finally, careful analysis of word accent sheds new light on the syllable structure of the language, notably on two interrelated questions about diphthong-hood and super-heavy syllables. It provides crucial insight into ‘diphthongs,’ or the question of which vowel sequence constitutes a diphthong, against a vowel sequence across a syllable boundary. It also presents new evidence against trimoraic syllables in the language.