The interactions of rational, pragmatic agents lead to efficient language structure and use

AbstractDespite their diversity, languages around the world share a consistent set of properties and distributional regularities. For example, the distribution of word frequencies, the distribution of syntactic dependency lengths, and the presence of ambiguity are all remarkably consistent across languages. We discuss a framework for studying how these system-level properties emerge from local, in-the-moment interactions of rational, pragmatic speakers and listeners. To do so, we derive a novel objective function for measuring the communicative efficiency of linguistic systems in terms of the interactions of speakers and listeners. We examine the behavior of this objective in a series of simulations focusing on the communicative function of ambiguity in language. These simulations suggest that rational pragmatic agents will produce communicatively efficient systems and that interactions between such agents provide a framework for examining efficient properties of language structure and use more broadly.

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