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Cogn Sci. 2013 Sep-Oct;37(7):1356-67. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12048. Epub 2013 Jun 13.

How to bootstrap a human communication system.

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School of Psychology, University of Western Australia.


How might a human communication system be bootstrapped in the absence of conventional language? We argue that motivated signs play an important role (i.e., signs that are linked to meaning by structural resemblance or by natural association). An experimental study is then reported in which participants try to communicate a range of pre-specified items to a partner using repeated non-linguistic vocalization, repeated gesture, or repeated non-linguistic vocalization plus gesture (but without using their existing language system). Gesture proved more effective (measured by communication success) and more efficient (measured by the time taken to communicate) than non-linguistic vocalization across a range of item categories (emotion, object, and action). Combining gesture and vocalization did not improve performance beyond gesture alone. We experimentally demonstrate that gesture is a more effective means of bootstrapping a human communication system. We argue that gesture outperforms non-linguistic vocalization because it lends itself more naturally to the production of motivated signs.


Bootstrapping communication; Gesture; Icons; Language evolution; Language origin; Signs; Symbols; Vocalization

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