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Signal dimensionality and the emergence of combinatorial structure

Little, H., Eryılmaz, K., & de Boer, B. (2017). Signal dimensionality and the emergence of combinatorial structure. Cognition, 168, 1-15. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2017.06.011.
In language, a small number of meaningless building blocks can be combined into an unlimited set of meaningful utterances. This is known as combinatorial structure. One hypothesis for the initial emergence of combinatorial structure in language is that recombining elements of signals solves the problem of overcrowding in a signal space. Another hypothesis is that iconicity may impede the emergence of combinatorial structure. However, how these two hypotheses relate to each other is not often discussed. In this paper, we explore how signal space dimensionality relates to both overcrowding in the signal space and iconicity. We use an artificial signalling experiment to test whether a signal space and a meaning space having similar topologies will generate an iconic system and whether, when the topologies differ, the emergence of combinatorially structured signals is facilitated. In our experiments, signals are created from participants' hand movements, which are measured using an infrared sensor. We found that participants take advantage of iconic signal-meaning mappings where possible. Further, we use trajectory predictability, measures of variance, and Hidden Markov Models to measure the use of structure within the signals produced and found that when topologies do not match, then there is more evidence of combinatorial structure. The results from these experiments are interpreted in the context of the differences between the emergence of combinatorial structure in different linguistic modalities (speech and sign).

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