Grammatical Evolution


Simon Pauw and Remi van Trijp


This session presents two concrete case studies on the evolution of grammar in the domains of gradable quantifiers and definite articles. Both case studies use agent-based modeling for identifying the linguistic selection criteria that drive language evolution, and for demonstrating how languages continue to evolve as language users dynamically configure and reconfigure their language systems in locally situated communicative interactions.

Case Study 1: Grammaticalization of Gradable Quantifiers (Simon Pauw)
Modifiers such as many and few are known to be syntactic hybrids, acting alternately as quantifiers and adjectives. It has been argued that this duality in syntax is the result of a grammaticalization process, where these modifiers originate as adjectives and later become quantifiers. I this presentation I will describe an agent-based computational model that combines these linguistic insights with results from cognitive studies. Using this model I show that existing quantifiers can create attractor positions for other modifiers to grammaticalize into and that many and few follow this path in search of reducing cognitive effort. Thus, arguing that the shift from qualifying to quantifying expression has a cognitive motivation.


Case Study 2: Linguistic Assessment Criteria for Explaining Language Change (Remi van Trijp)
The German definite article paradigm, which is notorious for its case syncretism, is widely considered to be the accidental by-product of diachronic changes. In this presentation, I argue instead that the evolution of the paradigm has been motivated by the needs and constraints of language usage. This hypothesis is supported by experiments that compare the current paradigm to its Old High German ancestor (OHG; 900–1100AD) in terms of linguistic assessment criteria such as cue reliability, processing efficiency and ease of articulation. Such a comparison has been made possible by “bringing back alive” the OHG system through a computational reconstruction in the form of a processing model.The experiments demonstrate that syncretism has made the New High German system more efficient for processing, pronunciation and perception than its historical predecessor, without harming the language’s strength at disambiguating utterances.