Communicative Efficiency or Iconic Learning: Do communicative and acquisition pressures interact to shape colour-naming systems?


Language evolution is driven by pressures for simplicity and informativity; however, the timescale on which these pressures operate is debated. Over several generations, learners' biases for simple and informative systems can guide language evolution. Over repeated instances of dyadic communication, the principle of least effort dictates that speakers should bias systems towards simplicity and listeners towards informativity, similarly guiding language evolution. At the same time, it has been argued that learners only provide a bias for simplicity and, thus, users must provide a bias for informativity. To what extent do languages evolve during acquisition versus use? Here, we address this question by formally defining and investigating the communicative efficiency of acquisition trajectories. We illustrate our approach using colour-naming systems, replicating the communicative efficiency model of Zaslavsky et al. (2018) and the acquisition model of Beekhuizen and Stevenson (2018). We find that to the extent language is iconic, learning alone is sufficient to shape evolution. With regard to colour-naming systems specifically, we find that incorporating learning biases into communicative efficiency accounts might explain how speakers and listeners trade off communicative effort.