LEC talk Tuesday 1 December: Klaas Seinhorst

By jon | November 25, 2015

Tuesday 1 December, 11:00–12:30
Room 1.17, DSB

Klaas Seinhorst, Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication, University of Amsterdam

Filling in the blanks – acquisition meets typology

It has often been observed that languages disprefer gaps in their phoneme inventories: they tend to maximally combine their distinctive features. In the late 1960s, the French phonologist André Martinet suggested in passing that this tendency may be rooted in the acquisition process, but so far empirical evidence has mostly been lacking. I present exactly such evidence from experiments with human learners (n = 96), who were exposed to one of eight category structures. These category structures have one binary feature and one ternary feature: as such, they resemble plosive inventories from spoken language, which often have a binary voicing opposition ([±voice] or [±tense]) and a three-way place of articulation contrast (usually [labial] vs. [coronal] vs. [dorsal]).

Given these features, a type I language could have the plosives /p t k/; a type VIII language has either /p t k b d g/ (like English) or /p ph t th k kh/; a type VI language might have /b p d k/. Types I and VIII are predominantly found in the world’s languages.

The results of the experiments show that participants often regularise their input, i.e. they (quite literally) fill in the blanks: for instance, type VI is often classified as type VIII. Consequently, learners considerably reduce the cumulative complexity of the data set. These outcomes, then, seem to support two related hypotheses: (i) biases in pattern learning favour regular systems; (ii) the low degree of complexity that has been attested in spoken languages may be ascribed to the iterated effect of such biases.