matt (hbergeronx) wrote,

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on language

The birth of a new language is such a rare event that scientists who want to watch it happen generally have to make do with computer simulations. Bruno Galantucci, a cognitive scientist at Yale University, has developed a human alternative, based upn the principle that necessity is the mother of invention... the two players cannot see or hear one another, but they are seated at interconnected computers... [E]ach player is located in one of four rooms and must find each other in one move each. These rooms are arranged in a square, and each pair of adjacent rooms is connected by a doorway. On the floor of each room is an icon...and prior to the game starting, the players have a short time to explore their surroundings... the players know there is another player in another of the rooms, and that they must both end up in the same room, but they can only ever see the room they are in. To help them guide each other to a rendezvous, they have a device on which they can scrawl symbols that appear on the other's screen. But the device works like a roll of paper that constantly scrolls downward, preventing them from writing letters, numbers, or any other commonly recognizable symbol.

...Some pairs solved the game in minutes, others struggled for hours and there were a few pairs who never found each other... since his volunteers included Yale University post-doctoral students, he infers that building a language is no trivial task... communication is established as soon as one player decides to copy the symbols proposed by his co-player, rather than impose his own.

...One strength of Dr. Galantucci's experiment that does not exist in the real world, however, is that he is able to interview his subjects afterwards. What is striking, he says, is that a pair can be successful even if a symbol represents something quite different in the virtual world to each player- as long as they can agree on what they should do when confronted by it. In other words, people only need convey a small amount of information to communicate effectively, and they can do so while holding fundamentally different ideas about how their language describes the world.

--Excerpt from The Economist, "Language: Looking for a Sign", Nov 12, 2005
Tags: linguistics

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