The Evolution of Syntax and Pragmatics in a Gradualist Scenario

Session Date: 
Mar 3, 2023

No account of how people understand language would be complete without an account of pragmatics, the study of how people understand jokes, insinuations, novel metaphors, or subtle nudges — all the meanings beyond the literal meaning that makes our social interactions entertaining, infuriating, creative, or polite, and that pose so much of a headache to developers of artificial systems. But how did language evolve to efficiently relay so much pragmatic trickery? Here, I present a new paper that builds on the idea that grammar evolved gradually, and with it, pragmatics. We argue that the simpler a grammar is, the stronger the reliance on pragmatic inferences for many aspects of meaning, including even basic questions such as who did what to whom. As grammars gradually evolve towards more complex systems, these coarse pragmatic inferences give way to pragmatic processes that are different in character: Syntax, semantics, and the lexicon evolve to contain reliable and systematic triggers for highly structured pragmatic phenomena. Our account thus links a gradualist scenario of the evolution of syntax that triggers distinct qualitative processes in pragmatic reasoning.

File 2023_03_03_06_Wittenberg.mp4642.24 MB