LEC talk Tuesday 8 December: Marieke Schouwstra

By jon | December 3, 2015

Tuesday 8 December, 11:00–12:30
Room 1.17, DSB

Marieke Schouwstra (work with Kenny Smith and Simon Kirby)

From natural order to convention in silent gesture

Silent gesture, an experimental paradigm in which adult hearing participants describe events using only their hands, has been valuable for investigating the origins of word order. Goldin-Meadow et al. (2008) found a language-independent preference for SOV for extensional transitive events (e.g., boy-ball-throw), but participants prefer SVO for intensional events (e.g., boy-search-ball; Schouwstra & de Swart, 2014).

The SVO/SOV pattern for intensional/extensional events arises independently of participants’ native language, and, we will claim, represents naturalness, reflecting cognitive preferences to put Agents first (Jackendoff, 2002) and more abstract/relational information last. However, existing languages tend not to condition word order on event type and are instead more regular. Understanding this transition from naturalness to conventionalised regularity is a major goal of language evolution research. We present a new approach to this challenge using a novel experimental paradigm in which silent gesture is both used for communication (Christensen et al, 2015) and culturally transmitted through artificial generations of lab participants (Smith et al, in prep).

I will describe four experiments in which participants communicate about intensional and extensional events, either in a dyadic communication or a gradual turnover setup. Our experiments show that in silent gesture communication and transmission, semantically conditioned word order tends to disappear in favour of regular word order. The frequency of event types determines how regularisation progresses. This suggests that where pressures for naturalness and regularity are in conflict, languages start natural, but naturalness will give way to regularity as signalling becomes conventionalised through repeated usage.