Compositionality and Linguistic Evolution

Kenny Smith and Simon Kirby

in The Oxford Handbook of Compositionality

Published in print February 2012 | ISBN: 9780199541072
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Compositionality and Linguistic Evolution

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  • Linguistics
  • Language Evolution
  • Semantics


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The productivity of language is subserved by two structural properties: language is recursive, which allows the creation of an infinite number of utterances, and language is compositional, which makes the interpretation of novel utterances possible. A potential explanation for the linkage between the functional properties of compositionality and the compositional structure of language is that this fit arose through cultural, rather than biological, evolution. In order to argue that the compositional structure of language is a product of cultural evolution, it is assumed that language is compositional, socially learned, and therefore culturally transmitted. A well-established solution to the problem of linkage in biological systems is that of evolution by natural selection: adaptation. Compositionality can be explained as a cultural adaptation by language to the problem of transmission through a learning bottleneck.

Keywords: cultural adaptation; compositionality; natural selection; heritable variation; compositional structure

Article.  7785 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution ; Semantics

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