[J4] - Neutral stability, drift, and the diversification of languages

C. Pawlowitsch, P. Mertikopoulos, and N. Ritt. Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 287, pp. 1–12, July 2011.


The diversification of languages is one of the most interesting facts about language that seek explanation from an evolutionary point of view. Conceptually the question is related to explaining mechanisms of speciation. An argument that prominently figures in evolutionary accounts of language diversification is that it serves the formation of group markers which help to enhance in-group cooperation. In this paper we use the theory of evolutionary games to show that language diversification on the level of the meaning of lexical items can come about in a perfectly cooperative world solely as a result of the effects of frequency-dependent selection. Importantly, our argument does not rely on some stipulated function of language diversification in some coevolutionary process, but comes about as an endogenous feature of the model. The model that we propose is an evolutionary language game in the style of Nowak et al. [1999, The evolutionary language game. J. Theor. Biol. 200, 147–162], which has been used to explain the rise of a signaling system or protolanguage from a prelinguistic environment. Our analysis focuses on the existence of neutrally stable polymorphisms in this model, where, on the level of the population, a signal can be used for more than one concept or a concept can be inferred by more than one signal. Specifically, such states cannot be invaded by a mutation for bidirectionality, that is, a mutation that tries to resolve the existing ambiguity by linking each concept to exactly one signal in a bijective way. However, such states are not resistant against drift between the selectively neutral variants that are present in such a state. Neutral drift can be a pathway for a mutation for bidirectionality that was blocked before but that finally will take over the population. Different directions of neutral drift open the door for a mutation for bidirectionality to appear on different resident types. This mechanism — which can be seen as a form of shifting balance — can explain why a word can acquire a different meaning in two languages that go back to the same common ancestral language, thereby contributing to the splitting of these two languages. Examples from currently spoken languages, for instance, English clean and its German cognate klein with the meaning of “small”, are provided.

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