Emerging abstractions: Lexical conventions are shaped by communicative context

AbstractWords exist for referring at many levels of specificity: from the broadest (thing) to the most specific (Fido). What drives the emergence of these taxonomies of reference? Recent computational theories of language evolution suggest that communicative demands of the environment may play a deciding role. Here, we investigate local pragmatic mechanisms of lexical adaptation that may undergird global emergence by manipulating context in a repeated reference game where pairs of participants interactively coordinate on an artificial communication system. We hypothesize that pairs should converge on specific names (e.g. Fido) when the context requires frequently making fine distinctions between entities; conversely, they should converge on a more compressed system of conventions for abstract categories (e.g. dog) in coarser contexts, even if a finer mapping would be sufficient. We show differences in the levels of abstraction that emerged in different environments and introduce a statistical approach to probe the dynamics of emergence.

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