The consequences of Zipf's law for syntax and symbolic reference


Although many species possess rudimentary communication systems, humans seem to be unique with regard to making use of syntax and symbolic reference. Recent approaches to the evolution of language formalize why syntax is selectively advantageous compared with isolated signal communication systems, but do not explain how signals naturally combine. Even more recent work has shown that if a communication system maximizes communicative efficiency while minimizing the cost of communication, or if a communication system constrains ambiguity in a non-trivial way while a certain entropy is maximized, signal frequencies will be distributed according to Zipf's law. Here we show that such communication principles give rise not only to signals that have many traits in common with the linking words in real human languages, but also to a rudimentary sort of syntax and symbolic reference. © 2005 The Royal Society.

Publication Title

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences