Introduction. Self-organization and selection in cultural language evolution

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This chapter outlines the main challenges a theory for the cultural evolution of language should address and proposes a particular theory which is worked out and explored in greater detail in the remaining chapters of this book. The theory rests on two biologically inspired mechanisms, namely selection and self-organization, mapped onto the cultural, more specifically, linguistic domain. Selectionism is an alternative to rational top-down design. It introduces a distinction between processes that generate possible linguistic variants in a population (for example, different ways to express tense and aspect) and processes that select some variants to survive and become dominant in a language, based on criteria that translate into increased communicative success, such as expressive adequacy, minimal cognitive effort, learnability and social conformity. Self-organization occurs when speakers and hearers align their communication systems based on the outcome of each interaction. It explains how convergence may arise without central coordination or direct telepathic meaning transfer. This chapter explains these basic hypotheses in more detail and introduces a methodology for exploring them based on the notion of a language game.


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