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date: 25 February 2021

Abstract and Keywords

This article provides an overview on the contributions of formal models in the evolution of language and addresses some common criticisms of formal models. A formal model is any description of a system that is sufficiently precise that predictions about the behavior of that system can be more or less mechanically produced from that description. Two types of formal model are commonly used that include mathematical and computational models. Predictions can be mechanically derived from the detailed specification of the model. One of the best-known formal models in evolutionary linguistics is Kirby's model of the cultural evolution of recursive compositionality. The model explores the theory that cultural transmission can produce a structured language from an initially unstructured, holistic protolanguage, through a historical process of cumulative fractionation. Kirby's computational model shows that, under certain assumptions, a recursively compositional language can indeed evolve from a non-compositional predecessor through purely cultural processes. A simple model includes only the minimal set of assumptions required to test the relevant aspects of the theory and abstracts away from everything else such as a recent tendency in part of the formal modeling literature has seen the replacement of relatively complex models with much simpler, much more abstract models. Recently modelers are testing the assumptions and predictions of their models on real human beings, in laboratory experiments. One of the approaches is to test the predictions of models directly in laboratory populations.

Keywords: formal model, abstract models, protolanguage, Kirby's computational model, verbal theory

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