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Lang Cogn. 2012 Nov 1;4(4):357-380.

The origins of duality of patterning in artificial whistled languages.

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University of Amsterdam, 1012 VT Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


In human speech, a finite set of basic sounds is combined into a (potentially) unlimited set of well-formed morphemes. Hockett (1960) placed this phenomenon under the term 'duality of patterning' and included it as one of the basic design features of human language. Of the thirteen basic design features Hockett proposed, duality of patterning is the least studied and it is still unclear how it evolved in language. Recent work shedding light on this is summarized in this paper and experimental data is presented. This data shows that combinatorial structure can emerge in an artificial whistled language through cultural transmission as an adaptation to human cognitive biases and learning. In this work the method of experimental iterated learning (Kirby et al. 2008) is used, in which a participant is trained on the reproductions of the utterances the previous participant learned. Participants learn and recall a system of sounds that are produced with a slide whistle. Transmission from participant to participant causes the whistle systems to change and become more learnable and more structured. These findings follow from qualitative observations, quantitative measures and a follow-up experiment that tests how well participants can learn the emerged whistled languages by generalizing from a few examples.


combinatorial structure; cultural evolution; language evolution; phonology

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