Biological Theory

, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 174–183 | Cite as

Language and the Free-Rider Problem: An Experimental Paradigm



Change and variation, while inherent to language, might be seen as running counter to human communicative needs. However, variation also gives language the power to convey reliable indexical information about the speaker. This has been argued to play a significant role in allowing the establishment of large communities based on cooperative exchange (M. Enquist and O. Leimar 1993, The evolution of cooperation in mobile organisms. Animal Behaviour 45: 747–757; R. I. M. Dunbar 1996, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. London: Faber and Faber), although there has been little experimental investigation of the hypothesis. Here I present a preliminary study intended to help fill this gap. Participants played an online team game in which they negotiated anonymously for resources using an artificial language. Players succeeded in using linguistic cues to distinguish between their teammates and their opponents, and displayed between-team variation in the use of the language.


cultural evolution experimental free-rider problem historical linguistics language change language evolution sociolinguistics 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Axelrod R (1990) The Evolution of Co-operation. London: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  2. Boyd R, Gintis H, Bowles S, Richerson PJ, eds (2003) The evolution of altruistic punishment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 100: 3532–3535.Google Scholar
  3. Christiansen MH, Chater N (2007) Language as shaped by the brain.∼amag/langev/paper/christiansen07languageBrain.html
  4. Cornish H (2006) Iterated learning with human subjects: An empirical framework for the emergence and cultural transmission of language. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Edinburgh, UK. Google Scholar
  5. Croft W (2000) Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary Approach. Harlow, UK: Longman.Google Scholar
  6. Cruttenden A (1986) Intonation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Deacon TW (1997/1998) The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  8. Dediu D, Ladd DR (2007) Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of two brain size genes, ASPM and Microcephalin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104: 10944–10949.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dunbar RIM (1996) Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. London: Faber and Faber.Google Scholar
  10. Enquist M, Leimar O (1993) The evolution of cooperation in mobile organisms. Animal Behaviour 45: 747–757.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Evans B (2004) The role of social network in the acquisition of local dialect norms by Appalachian immigrants in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Language Variation and Change 16: 153–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hagen LK (2008) The bilingual brain: Human evolution and second language acquisition. Evolutionary Psychology 6: 43–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Harrington J (2006) An acoustic analysis of ‘happy tensing’ in the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts. Journal of Phonetics 34: 439–457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kirby S (2000) Syntax without natural selection: How compositionality emerges from vocabulary in a population of learners. In: The Evolutionary Emergence of Language: Social Function and the Origins of Linguistic Form (Knight C, ed), 303–323. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kirby S, Hurford J (2002) The emergence of linguistic structure: An overview of the iterated learning model. In: Simulating the Evolution of Language (Cangelosi A, Parisi D, eds), 121–148. London: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Labov W (1963) The social motivation of a sound change. Word 19: 273–309.Google Scholar
  17. Labov W (1990) The intersection of sex and social class in the course of linguistic change. Language Variation and Change 2: 205–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Labov W (2001) Principles of Linguistic Change, Vol. 2: Social Factors. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  19. Lieberman E, Michel J, Jackson J, Tang T, Nowak MA (2007) Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language. Nature 449: 713–716.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Livingstone D (2002) The evolution of dialect diversity. In: Simulating the Evolution of Language (Cangelosi A, Parisi D, eds), 99–117. London: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Livingstone D, Fyfe C (1999) Modelling the evolution of linguistic diversity. In: Advances in Artificial Life. Proceedings of the 5th European Conference in Artificial Life, ECAL’ 99, Lausanne, Switzerland (Floreano D, Nicoud J-D, Mondada F, eds), 704–708. London: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Nettle D (1999) Linguistic Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Nettle D, Dunbar RIM (1997) Social markers and the evolution of cooperative exchange. Current Anthropology 38: 93–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Pagel M, Atkinson QD, Meade A (2007) Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Nature 449: 717–721.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Quinn M (2001) Evolving communication without dedicated communication channels. In: Advances in Artificial Life. 6th European Conference on Artificial Life, ECAL 2001 (Kelemen J, Sosik P, eds), 357–366. London: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Steels L (2000) Language as a complex adaptive system. In: Proceedings of PPSN VI (Schoenauer M, ed), 17–26. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  27. Tooby J, Cosmides L (1990) On the universality and the uniqueness of the individual: The role of genetics and personality. Journal of Personality 27: 17–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Trudgill P (1972) Sex, covert prestige and linguistic change in the urban British English of Norwich. Language in Society 1: 179–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Weinreich U, Labov W, Herzog M (1968) Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In: Directions for Historical Linguistics: A Symposium (Lehmann WP, ed), 95–195. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  30. Worden RP (1995) A speed limit for evolution. Journal of Theoretical Biology 176: 127–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Wray A, Grace GW (2007) The consequences of talking to strangers: Evolutionary corollaries of influences on linguistic form. Lingua 117: 543–578.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Language Evolution and Computation Research UnitUniversity of EdinburghScotland

Personalised recommendations