Front. Psychol., 18 March 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00226

Conceptual and empirical problems with game theoretic approaches to language evolution

  • 1Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  • 2Risk-Eraser, West Falmouth, MA, USA

The importance of game theoretic models to evolutionary theory has been in formulating elegant equations that specify the strategies to be played and the conditions to be satisfied for particular traits to evolve. These models, in conjunction with experimental tests of their predictions, have successfully described and explained the costs and benefits of varying strategies and the dynamics for establishing equilibria in a number of evolutionary scenarios, including especially cooperation, mating, and aggression. Over the past decade or so, game theory has been applied to model the evolution of language. In contrast to the aforementioned scenarios, however, we argue that these models are problematic due to conceptual confusions and empirical difficiences. In particular, these models conflate the comptutations and representations of our language faculty (mechanism) with its utility in communication (function); model languages as having different fitness functions for which there is no evidence; depend on assumptions for the starting state of the system, thereby begging the question of how these systems evolved; and to date, have generated no empirical studies at all. Game theoretic models of language evolution have therefore failed to advance how or why language evolved, or why it has the particular representations and computations that it does. We conclude with some brief suggestions for how this situation might be ameliorated, enabling this important theoretical tool to make substantive empirical contributions.

Keywords: language evolution, evolutionary game theory, communication, universal grammar, models, theoretical

Citation: Watumull J and Hauser MD (2014) Conceptual and empirical problems with game theoretic approaches to language evolution. Front. Psychol. 5:226. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00226

Received: 08 December 2013; Accepted: 28 February 2014;
Published online: 18 March 2014.

Edited by:

Andrea Moro, Institute for Advanced Study of Pavia (IUSS), Italy

Reviewed by:

Juan M. Toro, ICREA – University Pompeu Fabra, Spain
Ur Shlonsky, Université de Genève, Switzerland

Copyright © 2014 Watumull and Hauser. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Jeffrey Watumull, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB3 9DA, UK e-mail:

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