A computational model of emergent syllable systems is developed based on a set of functional constraints on syllable systems and the assumption that language structure emerges through cumulative change over time. The constraints were derived from general communicative factors as well as from the phonetic principles of perceptual distinctiveness and articulatory ease. Through evolutionary optimization, the model generated mock vocabularies optimized for the given constraints. Several simulations were run to understand how these constraints might define the emergence of universals and variation in complex sound systems. The predictions were that (1) CV syllables would be highly frequent in all vocabularies evolved under the constraints; (2) syllables with consonant clusters, consonant codas and vowel onsets would occur much less frequently; (3) a relationship would exist between the number of syllable types in a vocabulary and the average word length in the vocabulary; (4) different syllable types would emerge according to, what we termed, an iterative principle of syllable structure and their frequency would be directly related to their complexity; and (5) categorical differences would emerge between vocabularies evolved under the same constraints. Simulation results confirmed these predictions and provided novel insights into why regularities and differences may occur across languages. Specifically, the model suggested that both language universals and variation are consistent with a set of functional constraints that are fixed relative to one another. Language universals reflect underlying constraints on the system and language variation represents the many different and equally-good solutions to the unique problem defined by these constraints.
[ Unfortunately this exact paper cannot be distributed electronically, but an earlier version is available below. ]