Complex systems in language evolution: The cultural emergence of compositional structure

K Smith*, H Brighton, S Kirby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

50 Citations (Scopus)


Language arises from the interaction of three complex adaptive systems - biological evolution, learning, and culture. We focus here on cultural evolution, and present an Iterated Learning Model of the emergence of compositionality, a fundamental structural property of language. Our main result is to show that the poverty of the stimulus available to language learners leads to a pressure for linguistic structure. When there is a bottleneck on cultural transmission, only a language which is generalizable from sparse input data is stable. Language itself evolves on a cultural time-scale, and compositionality is language's adaptation to stimulus poverty.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)537-558
Number of pages22
JournalAdvances in Complex Systems
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • language
  • cultural evolution
  • compositionality


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