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Referential and General Calls in Primate Semantics

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Abstract

In recent years, the methods of formal semantics and pragmatics have been fruitfully applied to the analysis of primate communication systems. Most analyses therein appeal to a division of labor between semantics and pragmatics which has the following three features: (F1) calls are given referential meanings (they provide information about the world rather than just about an action to be taken), (F2) some calls have a general meaning, and (F3) the meanings of calls in context are enriched by competition with more informative calls, along the lines of scalar implicatures. In this paper, we develop highly simplified models to independently assess the conditions under which such features would emerge. After identifying a sufficient condition for (F1), we find a range of conditions under which (F2) and (F3) are not evolutionarily stable, and discuss the consequences for both modeling and empirical work.
Linguistics and Philosophy (2021) 44:1317–1342
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10988-021-09322-1
ORIGINAL RESEARCH
Referential and general calls in primate semantics
Shane Steinert-Threlkeld1·Philippe Schlenker2,3 ·Emmanuel Chemla4
Accepted: 5 January 2021 / Published online: 15 March 2021
© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V. part of Springer Nature 2021
Abstract
In recent years, the methods of formal semantics and pragmatics have been fruitfully
applied to the analysis of primate communication systems. Most analyses therein
appeal to a division of labor between semantics and pragmatics which has the following
three features: (F1) calls are given referential meanings (they provide information
about the world rather than just about an action to be taken), (F2) some calls have a
general meaning, and (F3) the meanings of calls in context are enriched by competition
with more informative calls, along the lines of scalar implicatures. In this paper, we
develop highly simplified models to independently assess the conditions under which
such features would emerge. After identifying a sufficient condition for (F1), we find
a range of conditions under which (F2) and (F3) are not evolutionarily stable, and
discuss the consequences for both modeling and empirical work.
Keywords Primate semantics ·Animal communication ·Informativity reasoning ·
Evolutionary stable strategy
In “Formal Monkey Linguistics” and “What Do Monkey Calls Mean?”, Schlenker
et al. (2016a,c) present three case studies in which they apply methods from formal
linguistics to the analysis of monkey alarm calls.
BShane Steinert-Threlkeld
shanest@uw.edu
Philippe Schlenker
philippe.schlenker@gmail.com
Emmanuel Chemla
chemla@ens.fr
1Department of Linguistics, University of Washington, Seattle, USA
2Institut Jean-Nicod (ENS - EHESS - CNRS), Ecole Normale Supérieure, PSL University, Paris,
France
3New York University, New York, USA
4Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique, Dept d’Etudes Cognitives, ENS, PSL
University, EHESS, CNRS, Paris, France
123
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Photocopy. Thesis (doctoral)--University of Amsterdam, 1984.