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Artificial Life

Fall 2008, Vol. 14, No. 4, Pages 445-465
(doi: 10.1162/artl.2008.14.4.14403)
© 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Nature of Words in Human Protolanguages: It's Not a Holophrastic-Atomic Meanings Dichotomy
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There is an ongoing debate as to whether the words in early presyntactic forms of human language had simple atomic meanings like modern words, or whether they were holophrastic. Simulations were conducted using an iterated learning model in which the agents were able to associate words with meanings, but in which they were not able to use syntactic rules to combine words into phrases or sentences. In some of these simulations words emerged that had neither holophrastic nor atomic meanings, demonstrating the possibility of protolanguages intermediate between these two extremes. Further simulations show how increases in cognitive or articulatory capacity would have produced changes in the type of words that was dominant in protolanguages. It is likely that at some point in time humans spoke a protolanguage in which most words had neither holophrastic nor atomic meanings.