Referential and General Calls in Primate Semantics
Shane Steinert-Threlkeld, Philippe Schlenker, Emmanuel Chemla
December 2020; forthcoming in Linguistics and Philosophy

In recent years, the methods of formal semantics and pragmatics have been fruitfully applied to the analysis of primate communication systems. Most analyses therein appeal to a division of labor between semantics and pragmatics which has the following three features: (F1) calls are given referential meanings (they provide information about the world rather than just about an action to be taken), (F2) some calls have a general meaning, and (F3) the meanings of calls in context are enriched by competition with more informative calls, along the lines of scalar implicatures. In this paper, we develop highly simplified models to independently assess the conditions under which such features would emerge. After identifying a sufficient condition for (F1), we find a range of conditions under which (F2) and (F3) are not evolutionarily stable, and discuss the consequences for both modeling and empirical work.

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