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The evolution of syntactic communication


Animal communication is typically non-syntactic, which means that signals refer to whole situations1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Human language is syntactic, and signals consist of discrete components that have their own meaning8. Syntax is a prerequisite for taking advantage of combinatorics, that is, “making infinite use of finite means”9,10,11. The vast expressive power of human language would be impossible without syntax, and the transition from non-syntactic to syntactic communication was an essential step in the evolution of human language12,13,14,15,16. We aim to understand the evolutionary dynamics of this transition and to analyse how natural selection can guide it. Here we present a model for the population dynamics of language evolution, define the basic reproductive ratio of words and calculate the maximum size of a lexicon. Syntax allows larger repertoires and the possibility to formulate messages that have not been learned beforehand. Nevertheless, according to our model natural selection can only favour the emergence of syntax if the number of required signals exceeds a threshold value. This result might explain why only humans evolved syntactic communication and hence complex language.

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Figure 1: How many word-learning events per individual are required for a population to maintain a certain number of words in its combined lexicon assuming that word frequencies follow Zipf's law?
Figure 2: To understand the essence of the evolution of syntax, we imagine a world where each event consists of one object and one action.
Figure 3: The fitness of non-syntactic and syntactic communication, Fn and Fs, as function of the total number of word learning events per individual, b, for three different choices of the event rate matrix, Γ.
Figure 4: Numerical validation of the approximate threshold condition given by equation (3).

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This work was supported by the Leon Levy and Shelby White Initiatives Fund, the Florence Gould Foundation, the J. Seward Johnson Sr Charitable Trusts, the Ambrose Monell Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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Correspondence to Martin A. Nowak.

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Nowak, M., Plotkin, J. & Jansen, V. The evolution of syntactic communication. Nature 404, 495–498 (2000).

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