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Proc Biol Sci. 1999 Oct 22;266(1433):2131-6.

An error limit for the evolution of language.

Author information

1
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA.

Abstract

On the evolutionary trajectory that led to human language there must have been a transition from a fairly limited to an essentially unlimited communication system. The structure of modern human languages reveals at least two steps that are required for such a transition: in all languages (i) a small number of phonemes are used to generate a large number of words; and (ii) a large number of words are used to a produce an unlimited number of sentences. The first (and simpler) step is the topic of the current paper. We study the evolution of communication in the presence of errors and show that this limits the number of objects (or concepts) that can be described by a simple communication system. The evolutionary optimum is achieved by using only a small number of signals to describe a few valuable concepts. Adding more signals does not increase the fitness of a language. This represents an error limit for the evolution of communication. We show that this error limit can be overcome by combining signals (phonemes) into words. The transition from an analogue to a digital system was a necessary step toward the evolution of human language.

PMID:
10902547
PMCID:
PMC1690318
DOI:
10.1098/rspb.1999.0898
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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