Michael A. Arbib
This article mentions that a formal view of compositional semantics is helpful both for what it reveals about the structure of language and also for what it deletes, including context, the use of compositionality to index rather than define meaning, and the role of idioms. It also discusses how Construction Grammar (CG) allows one to incorporate idioms into a framework in which compositionality may sometimes use familiar sequences of words as atoms when the meanings of single words do not themselves contribute to the meaning of the whole. Schema Theory shows what is meant by embodied meaning, and the way it is embedded in social experience. Linguists working within CG, with its close relations to Cognitive Grammar, have teased out the rule-governed and productive linguistic behaviors specific to each family of constructions.
Kenny Smith and Simon Kirby
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.
James R. Hurford
Researches in language evolution have presented some continuity between apes and humans. Researchers have shown that precursors to both sentence meaning (conceptual meaning) and speaker meaning (pragmatic meaning) are present in animals. They have also reported that something other than the ability to comprehend such meanings was necessary to launch language, perhaps shared intentions, and once language was launched it resulted in abilities to create new kinds of meanings. A phenomenon extensively researched in both developmental and comparative psychology is object permanence. There are two forms of the object permanence test, one harder than the other. The easier test, the visible object permanence test, involves simply moving an object, such as a treat, behind a screen, where it is invisible to the animal or child subject, restraining the subject briefly, and then seeing if the subject moves to retrieve the object from behind the screen. The harder test, the invisible object permanence test, involves placing the treat into a small container in view of the subject, then the container is hidden behind the screen, where it is emptied out unseen by the subject and the empty container is then shown to the subject, who passes the test if he/she searches behind the screen. The episodic memory is related to object permanence. This is a kind of memory for specific events that have happened to the individual subject.
The foregoing considerations support the conjecture that prototypes are semi-compositional in the sense that there exist unboundedly many combinations of nouns with non-exceptional adjectives, which satisfy the rule default-to-prototype (DP) and hence are compositional. Presumably there also exist unboundedly many combinations of nouns with exceptional adjectives, which violate DP and hence are non-compositional. An analysis of the connection between productivity (systematicity) and compositionality has been suggested by Robbins. He argues that, for the explanation of productivity, one need not assume that conceptual meanings (contents) always compose—it is enough that they compose in in(de)finitely many cases. Since semi-compositionality entails the existence of unboundedly many non-compositional cases, non-compositionality cannot be dealt away with a finite list of idiomatic exceptions, but is a genuine feature of prototype semantics in natural language.