The Interactive Origin of Iconicity

Cognitive Science 42 (1):334-349 (2018)
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We investigate the emergence of iconicity, specifically a bouba-kiki effect in miniature artificial languages under different functional constraints: when the languages are reproduced and when they are used communicatively. We ran transmission chains of participant dyads who played an interactive communicative game and individual participants who played a matched learning game. An analysis of the languages over six generations in an iterated learning experiment revealed that in the Communication condition, but not in the Reproduction condition, words for spiky shapes tend to be rated by naive judges as more spiky than the words for round shapes. This suggests that iconicity may not only be the outcome of innovations introduced by individuals, but, crucially, the result of interlocutor negotiation of new communicative conventions. We interpret our results as an illustration of cultural evolution by random mutation and selection.



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Sean Roberts
Harvard University