Differences in learnability of pantomime versus artificial sign: Iconicity, cultural evolution, and linguistic structure

AbstractOne of the central goals of language evolution research is to explain how systematic structure emerges. A cultural evolutionary approach proposes that the systematic structure of language arises from the use and transmission of language. Motamedi and colleagues (2016) investigated the influences of these forces on the evolution of language by generating an artificial sign language in the lab. Over several generations of new learners and their interactions, an initially unsystematic set of silent gestures developed markers for functional categories of person, location, object, and action. Here we describe results of two studies that compared the learnability of solo-produced pantomimes versus signals that had been transmitted and used by interlocutors. In these studies, participants saw an artificial sign and judged whether an English translation matched or mismatched the meaning of the sign. In an event-related potential (ERP) study, we found that mismatches elicited larger negativities in the ERP than matches. However, those effects were most reminiscent of the classic N400 response in the evolved signs. This study provides a clearer view on how the mechanisms that drive language evolution change language to adapt to a learner’s brain.

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