Dingemanse, M., Liesenfeld, A., & Woensdregt, M.
(2022). Convergent cultural evolution of continuers (mhmm). In A. Ravignani, R. Asano, D. Valente, F. Ferretti, S. Hartmann, M. Hayashi, Y. Jadoul, M. Martins, Y. Oseki, E. D. Rodrigues, O. Vasileva, & S. Wacewicz (Eds.), The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the Joint Conference on Language Evolution (JCoLE) (pp. 160-167). Nijmegen: Joint Conference on Language Evolution (JCoLE). doi:10.31234/osf.io/65c79.
Continuers —words like mm, mmhm, uhum and the like— are among the most frequent types of responses in conversation. They play a key role in joint action coordination by showing positive evidence of understanding and scaffolding narrative delivery. Here we investigate the hypothesis that their functional importance along with their conversational ecology places selective pressures on their form and may lead to cross-linguistic similarities through convergent cultural evolution. We compare continuer tokens in linguistically diverse conversational corpora and find languages make available highly similar forms. We then approach the causal mechanism of convergent cultural evolution using exemplar modelling, simulating the process by which a combination of effort minimization and functional specialization may push continuers to a particular region of phonological possibility space. By combining comparative linguistics and computational modelling we shed new light on the question of how language structure is shaped by and for social interaction.