Workshop by Kristian Tylén

Experimental Semiotics - Investigating the Emergence of Novel Sign Systems

Through the last two decades a new research field has emerged that was recently coined experimental semiotics. Experimental semiotics aims to investigate the factors and underlying processes that shape the development of sign systems, such as for instance natural languages. Languages evolve over historical timescales in response to complex dynamics and interactions of many factors pertaining to biology, cognition, culture, social interaction, technology and the environment. It is thus very difficult to investigate and make claims about language evolution. However, in experimental semiotics, researchers experimentally simulate simple environments in the laboratory where participants have to evolve communicative systems from scratch in order to solve a task. This allows us to systematically control and investigate different factors and how they interact to form functional communication systems. Ultimately, these kinds of experiments can thus inform discussions of the processes underlying language evolution. In this workshop we will look into the different types of experimental paradigms that have been used and try out a few demonstrations in the class room.

Part 1. How to bootstrap a communication system

Language has famously been argued to be fundamentally arbitrary (Saussure, 1916). However, a central question in language evolution concerns the so-called “symbol grounding problem” (Harnad 1990): In order to collectively establish and conventionalize (arbitrary) meanings of new signs we depend on expressions, definitions or negotiations of those meanings in some other modality or language. We discuss solutions to this circularity problem reviewing experimental evidence that new signs are initially grounded in motivated iconic or indexical mappings to the referents. While iconicity could seem an important factor in bootstrapping a new communications system there also seems to be processes that might push communication system away from iconicity and towards more arbitrary signs. Among these are pressures for optimization of communication.

Recommended readings
Garrod, S., Fay, N., Lee, J., Oberlander, J., & MacLeod, T. (2007). Foundations of representation: where might graphical symbol systems come from? Cognitive Science, 31(6), 961-987.
Harnad, S. (1990). The symbol grounding problem. Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena, 42(1-3), 335-346.
Fay, N., Ellison, M., & Garrod, S. (2014). Iconicity: From sign to system in human communication and language. Pragmatics & Cognition, 22(2), 244-263.
Fay, N., Arbib, M., & Garrod, S. (2013). How to bootstrap a human communication system. Cognitive Science, 37(7), 1356-1367.

Part 2. On the role of learning and the environment

While session one is mainly concerned with the role of social interaction, in session two we will review a few additional factors that have been suggested to impact the emergence and structure of sign systems. Specifically, we will look into the role of i) individual learning and the way our cognitive systems (with their biases, expectations and limited memory capacities) give shape to sign system through instruction and learning over multiple generations. And we will look at ii) the Linguistic Niche Hypothesis and the suggestion that the physical and social environment might have an impact on the propagation of linguistic structure.    

Recommended readings
Kirby, S., Cornish, H., & Smith, K. (2008). Cumulative cultural evolution in the laboratory: An experimental approach to the origins of structure in human language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(31), 10681-10686.
Tamariz M & Kirby S (2015) Culture: Copying, compression and conventionality. Cognitive Science 39, 171-183.
Christensen, P., Fusaroli, R., & Tylén, K. (2016). Environmental constraints shaping constituent order in emerging communication systems: Structural iconicity, interactive alignment and conventionalization. Cognition, 146, 67-80.