Projects in Previous Years

1st Semester 2021/22: Evolutionary origins of compositionality

Marieke Schouwstra

Compositionality is often described at one of the key properties of human language. Looking at compositionality 


We will focus on the evolutionary origins of this property, and discuss questions around three central themes:

Compositionality: definition and uniqueness

  • How do we best define compositionality?
  • Is compositionality restricted to language?
  • Is human language compositional at all?
  • Is compositionality an all or nothing phenomenon? 


Evolutionary trajectory: theories and models

  • Should we look for the origins of compositionality in the biological or the cultural domain?
  • What could the evolutionary trajectory of the emergence of compositionality have looked like?


Evolutionary trajectory: empirical data

  • What can emerging sign languages tell us about the emergence of compositionality?
  • What can animal cognition and communication tell us about the evolution of compositionality?
  • How can we investigate emerging compositionality in the lab?
  • How do the ways in which we measure compositionality in empirical data match up with theoretical conceptions of compositionality?



There will be 3 introductory lectures, one on each of the three sub-topics. In each of the remaining classes, a student will give a class presentation on one of the questions mentioned above, followed by a discussion session. A list of articles will be made available; suggestions are welcome. We will end the project with a website which presents short papers by each of the students, and the way in which they relate to each other.



An interest in the topic, and willingness to approach it from various angles. 


There will be a class presentation, and a short essay. Participation, both in the sense of being present during class, and in the sense of actively contributing to the discussion, will be taken into account.




Brighton, H. (2005). Compositionality, linguistic evolution, and induction by minimum description length.

Cavicchio, F., Dachkovsky, S., Leemor, L., Shamay-Tsoory, S., & Sandler, W. (2018). Compositionality in the language of emotion. PloS one, 13(8), e0201970.

Dachkovsky, S., Stamp, R., & Sandler, W. (2018). Constructing complexity in a young sign language. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2202.

Fontanari, J. F., & Perlovsky, L. I. (2007). Evolving compositionality in evolutionary language games. IEEE Transactions on Evolutionary Computation, 11(6), 758-769.

Franke, M. (2016). The evolution of compositionality in signaling games. Journal of Logic, Language and Information, 25(3), 355-377.

Goldberg, A. E. (2015). Compositionality. In The Routledge handbook of semantics (pp. 419-433). Taylor and Francis Inc..

Fitch, W. T. (2017). On externalization and cognitive continuity in language evolution. Mind & Language, 32(5), 597-606.

Janssen, T. M., & Partee, B. H. (1997). Compositionality. In Handbook of logic and language (pp. 417-473). North-Holland.

Kirby, S., Tamariz, M., Cornish, H., & Smith, K. (2015). Compression and communication in the cultural evolution of linguistic structure. Cognition, 141, 87-102.

Oña, L. S., Sandler, W., & Liebal, K. (2019). A stepping stone to compositionality in chimpanzee communication. PeerJ, 7, e7623.

Pagin, P., & Westerståhl, D. (2010). Compositionality I: Definitions and variants. Philosophy Compass, 5(3), 250-264.

Pagin, P., & Westerståhl, D. (2010). Compositionality II: Arguments and problems. Philosophy Compass, 5(3), 265-282.

Raviv, L., & Arnon, I. (2018). Systematicity, but not compositionality: Examining the emergence of linguistic structure in children and adults using iterated learning. Cognition, 181, 160-173.

Senghas, A., Kita, S., & Özyürek, A. (2004). Children creating core properties of language: Evidence from an emerging sign language in Nicaragua. Science, 305(5691), 1779-1782.

Smith, K., & Kirby, S. (2012). Compositionality and linguistic evolution. In The Oxford handbook of compositionality.

Steinert-Threlkeld, S. (2019). Towards the Emergence of Non-trivial Compositionality. Philosophy of Science.

Szabó, Z.G., Compositionality. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Townsend, S. W., Engesser, S., Stoll, S., Zuberbühler, K., & Bickel, B. (2018). Compositionality in animals and humans. PLoS Biology, 16(8), e2006425.

Verhoef, T., de Boer, B., & Kirby, S. (2012). Holistic or synthetic protolanguage: Evidence from iterated learning of whistled signals. In The evolution of language (pp. 368-375).

Wray, A. (1998). Protolanguage as a holistic system for social interaction. Language & communication, 18(1), 47-67.