A growing body of work demonstrates that syntactic structure can evolve in populations of genetically identical agents. Traditional explanations for the emergence of syntactic structure employ an argument based on genetic evolution: Syntactic structure is specified by an innate language acquisition device (LAD). Knowledge of language is complex, yet the data available to the language learner are sparse. This incongruous situation, termed the “poverty of the stimulus,” is accounted for by placing much of the specification of language in the LAD. The assumption is that the characteristic structure of language is somehow coded genetically. The effect of language evolution on the cultural substrate, in the absence of genetic change, is not addressed by this explanation. We show that the poverty of the stimulus introduces a pressure for compositional language structure when we consider language evolution resulting from iterated observational learning. We use a mathematical model to map the space of parameters that result in compositional syntax. Our hypothesis is that compositional syntax cannot be explained by understanding the LAD alone: Compositionality is an emergent property of the dynamics resulting from sparse language exposure.

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