11 December: Fiona Kirton

Animacy and word order choice in an artificial language learning experiment

Fiona Kirton (CLE, University of Edinburgh)

Tuesday, 11 December
11:30am – 12:30pm
3.10, DSB

A number of improvised gesture studies have investigated how constituent order preferences are influenced by the animacy of the entities interacting in an event. Results from these studies suggest that, when people use improvised gesture to describe events involving an animate agent and inanimate patient (so-called non-reversible events), they show a preference for SOV. In contrast, some early studies find that when people describe events in which both the agent and patient are animate (reversible events), they show a preference for SVO. Data from other studies, however, suggest a more complex picture in relation to reversible events. In this talk, I will discuss competing hypotheses the have been proposed by different authors to account for the observed word order patterns in each study. I will focus in particular on two. The first, the noisy channel hypothesis (Gibson et al., 2013), is an information-theoretic account that proposes that verb-medial orders maximise message recoverability when both entities are animate and could plausibly fulfil the role of agent or patient. The second, which I term the cognitive saliency hypothesis (Meir et al., 2017), suggests that more cognitively basic entities are expressed first, resulting in a preference for SOV when the agent is higher on the animacy scale than the patient, and an approximately even distribution across SOV and OSV when both entities are animate. In contrast to Gibson et al., Meir et al. argue that the preference among some groups for SVO when describing reversible events can be explained in terms of interference from another linguistic system. In this talk, I will discuss an artificial language learning experiment designed to test these two hypotheses. I will present initial results from this study and discuss design ideas for a follow-up experiment.