The two main theories of language evolution suggest that language is transmitted either like genes are inherited from parents or like games played in a classroom. A study published in Cognitive Science is described today in ScienceDaily lends support to the view of language as a learned social activity:
In this work, researchers from the University of Western Australia, the University of Glasgow and the UPM used a novel communication experiment, one that prohibited participants from using their existing language, to create a context in which human subjects could develop simple communication systems in a laboratory setting.
The participants were grouped in communities of eight people, or micro-societies, and participated in a graphical communication game similar to “Pictionary.” The representations that subjects created and used to communicate evolved from simple iconic representations to more symbolic and abstract representations, like words in today’s spoken languages.
The main result of this work is evidence that supports one of the alternative theories explaining the evolution of language, in which collaboration and interaction are critical. Also, it was shown that the most effective ways of communicating can spread through a community like a virus from person to person.
If the social learning theory of language is correct, then one can expect “breakthroughs” in communication to emerge in small clusters of people that are then transmitted through the entire language community. Like a virus, you might say. Or, like in the game Pictionary, drawing techniques proven effective in one game are copied from one game to the next. Once you figure out, say, that you can draw an ear and people will understand that you mean “sounds like,” other players in the game copy the winning strategy.