1st Semester 2020/21: Evolutionary origins of compositionality

Marieke Schouwstra

Compositionality is often described at one of the key properties of human language. 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?
- Do we find aspects of compositionality in animal communication?
- Is compositionality restricted to language?
- Is human language compositional at all?


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 look like?


Evolutionary trajectory: empirical data

- What can emerging sign languages tell us about the emergence of compositionality?
- How can we investigate emerging compositionality in the lab?



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 look at it from many different viewpoints.


There will be a class presentation, and a short essay. Participation, both in the sense of being online 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.

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

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.

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.

Szabó, Z.G., Compositionality. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/compositionality/>.

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.

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