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An information and coding theoretical approach to combinatorial communication

  • Author(s): Engesser, Sabrina;
  • Fitch, Tecumseh
  • et al.
Abstract

A fundamental characteristic of human language is its combinatorial nature, which facilitates the communication of infinite meanings (i.e., words) built from finite sounds (i.e., phonemes). Investigating the selective drivers of this combinatorial feature represents a major challenge in the field of language evolution and has prospered into a rich interdisciplinary field. Here, we discuss the emergence of combinatorial structures in (human and non-human) communication systems from an information and coding theoretical perspective. We describe how “noise” (i.e., factors constraining communication processes) can hamper and distort signal transmission and perception, and how such noise-induced impairments can be circumvented through a combinatorial coding scheme that adds redundancy to a signalling system, in turn increasing its robustness and enhancing signal detection and discrimination. In doing so we argue that basic combinatoriality has emerged due to universal constraints imposed on signalling systems, and that human language-like productive combinatoriality builds upon this phenomenon.

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