February 23rd: Yasamin Motamedi & Simon Kirby

Regularisation, naturalness, and harmony in emerging word order conventions

Yasamin Motamedi & Simon Kirby, University of Edinburgh

Tuesday, Feb 23 2021, 11:00-12:00 GMT
Zoom Details: [Please Request]

What are the factors that shape the emergence of linguistic conventions? We hypothesise that the very first stage of language evolution involves communicative strategies which are improvised on an item-by-item basis. However, as language is transmitted culturally, it begins to exhibit system-wide structural conventions.

In this talk we will use basic word order as a lens to examine the different factors that bias which conventionalised patterns are preferred. We will look at three factors, which languages exhibit to varying extents.

1. Naturalness: the preference for word orders that transparently reflect the particular semantics of what is being communicated.
2. Regularity: the preference for using the same word order predictably for a particular meaning.
3. Harmony: the preference for using the same word order across all meanings.

We will present results from three sets of online experiments which combine silent gesture with artificial language learning. These set out to answer the following questions. Is naturalness limited to improvisation? Will it be replaced by harmony through iterated learning? Is regularisation or harmonisation affected by the modality of a language?

These experiments cast light on the mechanisms involved in the very early stages of language emergence – mechanisms which lead to the system-wide structuring of conventions we see across spoken and signed languages today.