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The Linguistic Review

Editor-in-Chief: Hulst, Harry

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Volume 32, Issue 1 (Feb 2015)


Ambiguity and the origins of syntax

Luc Steels
  • Corresponding author
  • ICREA. Institut de Biologia Evolutiva (CSIC-UPF) Barcelona
  • Email:
/ Emília Garcia Casademont
  • Institut de Biologia Evolutiva (CSIC-UPF) Barcelona
  • Email:
Published Online: 2015-01-30 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/tlr-2014-0021


The paper argues that syntax is motivated by the need to avoid combinatorial search in parsing and semantic ambiguity in interpretation. It reports on a case study for the emergence and sharing of first-order phrase structures in a population of agents playing language games. First-order phrase structures combine words into phrases but do not yet generalise to hierarchical or recursive phrases. To study why human languages exhibit phrase structure, a series of strategies for creating and sharing linguistic conventions are examined, starting from a lexical strategy without syntax and then studying the use of groups, n-grams and patterns. Each time we show in which way a strategy improves on the computational complexity of the previous on.

Keywords: origins of syntax; language games; language strategies; semiotic dynamics

About the article

Published Online: 2015-01-30

Published in Print: 2015-02-01

Citation Information: The Linguistic Review, ISSN (Online) 1613-3676, ISSN (Print) 0167-6318, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/tlr-2014-0021.

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©2015 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Munich/Boston. Copyright Clearance Center

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