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Alien forms for alien language: investigating novel form spaces in cultural evolution

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Christine CuskleyORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


A cornerstone of experimental studies in language evolution has been iterated artificial language learning: studies where participants learn of artificial ‘alien’ languages, and the product of their learning is then passed onto other participants successively. Results over the last decade show that some defining features of human language can arise under these experimental conditions, which use iteration to simulate processes of cultural transmission. The form modalities used in iterated learning studies have expanded considerably in recent years, but the dynamics of how learning a completely novel form system interact with processes of cultural transmission are only beginning to be explored. This paper provides a brief overview of artificial language learning studies in the context of language evolution, situating them in a framework which focuses on forms used in learning and production. This issue is further explored with an iterated experiment which focuses on the role of learning completely novel forms in isolation. This experiment uses a new set of graphical symbols called Ferros, which are produced using a virtual palette. Results show that properties of this novel form space—in particular, ease of articulation—have specific effects on sequence learning and evolution. These results have implications for how forms and modalities might constrain language systems, and demonstrate how the use of truly novel alien forms might be extended to address new questions in cultural and linguistic evolution.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Cuskley C

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Palgrave Communications

Year: 2019

Volume: 5

Online publication date: 06/08/2019

Acceptance date: 18/07/2019

Date deposited: 19/08/2019

ISSN (electronic): 2055-1045

Publisher: Springer Nature


DOI: 10.1057/s41599-019-0299-5


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