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Article

Marieke Woensdregt and Kenny Smith

Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics that deals with language use in context. It looks at the meaning linguistic utterances can have beyond their literal meaning (implicature), and also at presupposition and turn taking in conversation. Thus, pragmatics lies on the interface between language and social cognition. From the point of view of both speaker and listener, doing pragmatics requires reasoning about the minds of others. For instance, a speaker has to think about what knowledge they share with the listener to choose what information to explicitly encode in their utterance and what to leave implicit. A listener has to make inferences about what the speaker meant based on the context, their knowledge about the speaker, and their knowledge of general conventions in language use. This ability to reason about the minds of others (usually referred to as “mindreading” or “theory of mind”) is a cognitive capacity that is uniquely developed in humans compared to other animals. What we know about how pragmatics (and the underlying ability to make inferences about the minds of others) has evolved. Biological evolution and cultural evolution are the two main processes that can lead to the development of a complex behavior over generations, and we can explore to what extent they account for what we know about pragmatics. In biological evolution, changes happen as a result of natural selection on genetically transmitted traits. In cultural evolution on the other hand, selection happens on skills that are transmitted through social learning. Many hypotheses have been put forward about the role that natural selection may have played in the evolution of social and communicative skills in humans (for example, as a result of changes in food sources, foraging strategy, or group size). The role of social learning and cumulative culture, however, has been often overlooked. This omission is particularly striking in the case of pragmatics, as language itself is a prime example of a culturally transmitted skill, and there is solid evidence that the pragmatic capacities that are so central to language use may themselves be partially shaped by social learning. In light of empirical findings from comparative, developmental, and experimental research, we can consider the potential contributions of both biological and cultural evolutionary mechanisms to the evolution of pragmatics. The dynamics of types of evolutionary processes can also be explored using experiments and computational models.

Article

Bruno Galantucci

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.

Article

Cedric Boeckx and Pedro Tiago Martins

All humans can acquire at least one natural language. Biolinguistics is the name given to the interdisciplinary enterprise that aims to unveil the biological bases of this unique capacity.

Article

Game theory provides formal means of representing and explaining action choices in social decision situations where the choices of one participant depend on the choices of another. Game theoretic pragmatics approaches language production and interpretation as a game in this sense. Patterns in language use are explained as optimal, rational, or at least nearly optimal or rational solutions to a communication problem. Three intimately related perspectives on game theoretic pragmatics are sketched here: (i) the evolutionary perspective explains language use as the outcome of some optimization process, (ii) the rationalistic perspective pictures language use as a form of rational decision-making, and (iii) the probabilistic reasoning perspective considers specifically speakers’ and listeners’ beliefs about each other. There are clear commonalities behind these three perspectives, and they may in practice blend into each other. At the heart of game theoretic pragmatics lies the idea that speaker and listener behavior, when it comes to using a language with a given semantic meaning, are attuned to each other. By focusing on the evolutionary or rationalistic perspective, we can then give a functional account of general patterns in our pragmatic language use. The probabilistic reasoning perspective invites modeling actual speaker and listener behavior, for example, as it shows in quantitative aspects of experimental data.

Article

Philippe Schlenker, Emmanuel Chemla, and Klaus Zuberbühler

Rich data gathered in experimental primatology in the last 40 years are beginning to benefit from analytical methods used in contemporary linguistics, especially in the area of semantics and pragmatics. These methods have started to clarify five questions: (i) What morphology and syntax, if any, do monkey calls have? (ii) What is the ‘lexical meaning’ of individual calls? (iii) How are the meanings of individual calls combined? (iv) How do calls or call sequences compete with each other when several are appropriate in a given situation? (v) How did the form and meaning of calls evolve? Four case studies from this emerging field of ‘primate linguistics’ provide initial answers, pertaining to Old World monkeys (putty-nosed monkeys, Campbell’s monkeys, and colobus monkeys) and New World monkeys (black-fronted Titi monkeys). The morphology mostly involves simple calls, but in at least one case (Campbell’s -oo) one finds a root–suffix structure, possibly with a compositional semantics. The syntax is in all clear cases simple and finite-state. With respect to meaning, nearly all cases of call concatenation can be analyzed as being semantically conjunctive. But a key question concerns the division of labor between semantics, pragmatics, and the environmental context (‘world’ knowledge and context change). An apparent case of dialectal variation in the semantics (Campbell’s krak) can arguably be analyzed away if one posits sufficiently powerful mechanisms of competition among calls, akin to scalar implicatures. An apparent case of noncompositionality (putty-nosed pyow–hack sequences) can be analyzed away if one further posits a pragmatic principle of ‘urgency’. Finally, rich Titi sequences in which two calls are re-arranged in complex ways so as to reflect information about both predator identity and location are argued not to involve a complex syntax/semantics interface, but rather a fine-grained interaction between simple call meanings and the environmental context. With respect to call evolution, the remarkable preservation of call form and function over millions of years should make it possible to lay the groundwork for an evolutionary monkey linguistics, illustrated with cercopithecine booms.

Article

Several attempts have been made to classify Romance languages. The subgroups created can be posited as intermediate entities in diachrony between a mother language and daughter languages. This diachronic perspective can be structured using a rigid model, such as that of the family tree, or more flexible ones. In general, this perspective yields a bipartite division between Western Romance languages (Ibero-Romance, Gallo-Romance, Alpine-, and Cisalpine-Romance) and Eastern Romance languages (Italian and Romanian), or a tripartite split between Sardinian, Romanian, and other languages. The subgroups can, however, be considered synchronic groupings based on the analysis of the characteristics internal to the varieties. Naturally, the groupings change depending on which features are used and which theoretic model is adopted. Still, this type of approach signals the individuality of French and Romanian with respect to the Romània continua, or contrasts northern and southern Romània, highlighting, on the one hand, the shared features in Gallo-Romance and Gallo-Italian and, on the other, those common to Ibero-Romance, southern Italian, and Sardinian. The task of classifying Romance languages includes thorny issues such as distinguishing between synchrony and diachrony, language and dialect, and monothetic and polythetic classification. Moreover, ideological and political matters often complicate the theme of classification. Many problems stand as yet unresolved, and they will probably remain unresolvable.