13 June: Myrte Vos

Word order, naturalness and conventionalisation: Evidence from silent gesture

Myrte Vos (University of Amsterdam)

Tuesday 13 June 2017, 11:00–12:30
1.17 Dugald Stewart Building

Of the six possible ways to order Subject, Object and Verb, two – SOV and SVO – account for the constituent word order in nearly 80% of the world’s languages. Why? The pragmatic principle ‘Agent first’ accounts for the dominance of S-initial word orders; and recent work in word order typology, creoles, emerging sign languages, and improvised silent gesture suggests that SOV is the natural ‘default’ in nonverbal event representation and early language structure. But if that is so, why is SVO word order nearly as prominent as SOV?

One improvised silent gesture study, from Schouwstra & de Swart (2014), suggests that in improvised communication, the usage of SOV versus SVO is conditioned on the semantic content of the verb. Another study, by Marno, Langus and Nespor (2015) posits that SVO is preferred by the syntax-governing ‘computational system’ of cognition, and that while improvised communication favours SOV, access to a lexicon frees up the cognitive resources needed to employ syntax, and “consequently SVO, the more efficient word order to express syntactic relations, emerges.” In their improvised silent gesture task, wherein half the participants had to improvise their gesturing of simple transitive events and the other half were first taught a gesture lexicon before being asked to communicate, participants trained on a lexicon did indeed favour SVO. We replicated this experiment with stimuli restricted to event-types found to elicit SOV, as well as running an adapted condition using a lexicon of randomly assigned, arbitrary gestures, to further investigate Marno et al.’s hypothesis.