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DO WE SEE WORD ORDER PATTERNS FROM SILENT
GESTURE STUDIES IN A NEW NATURAL LANGUAGE?
MOLLY FLAHERTY*1, MARIEKE SCHOUWSTRA1, SUSAN GOLDIN-MEADOW2
*Molly Flaherty: firstname.lastname@example.org
1Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
2Department of Psychology, The University of Chicago, Chicago, USA
Typological analysis clearly shows that the world’s languages are not evenly
distributed among all logically possible patterns. Of the six possible orderings of
Subject (S), Object (O), and Verb (V), SOV and SVO orders are vastly
overrepresented in the world’s languages. Studies on the emergence of word
order regularities in silent gesture by hearing non-signers (e.g., Goldin-Meadow,
et al., 2008; Gibson et al., 2013) overwhelmingly find evidence for SOV
ordering. Based on this type of evidence, it has been proposed that SOV
ordering is the most basic ordering from which all other orders emerged.
However, semantic properties of the meanings to be conveyed also influence
word order in silent gesture. For instance, for intensional events (in which the
object is possibly non-existent or dependent on the action; e.g., ‘man thinks of
guitar’, ‘woman builds house’) a cross-linguistic preference for SVO was found
(Schouwstra & de Swart, 2014). Recent work finds that meaning-dependent
word order patterns typical of silent gesture disappear under the influence of
interaction (Christensen et al., 2016) and cultural transmission (Schouwstra et
al., 2016), in favor of more consistent word order usage. However, in these
studies, word order usage never becomes completely regular.
Here we investigate whether traces of the SOV/SVO pattern found in silent
gesture can be observed in a new natural language: Nicaraguan Sign Language.
This sign language, one of the youngest languages known to science, was born
in the late 1970s with the founding of a new school for special education.
Though instruction was in Spanish, students soon began to communicate with
one another manually. As succeeding cohorts of students learn NSL, the
language itself is changing rapidly. Though somewhat variable, NSL word order
is strongly verb-final and predominantly SOV (Flaherty, 2014). However, these
data are based exclusively on analysis of extensional events. If NSL word order
is also influenced by semantic properties of the utterance’s intended meaning,
we would expect to see deviation from this SOV patterning.
This paper is distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY-ND license.
Participants viewed a series of events depicting eight extensional events
(i.e. woman pop bubble) and eight intensional events (i.e. woman blow bubble)
involving the same object. Participants were asked to describe what they saw to
a peer. Twenty-six NSL signers participated. All signers were exposed to NSL
before age 7, upon school entry between the early 1980s and early 2000s.
When we analyzed SOV and SVO strings (which accounted for only 39%
of strings with 1 verb and 2 arguments), we did not observe the pattern typical of
silent gesture: SOV was dominant for both extensional and intensional events,
and very few SVO strings were observed (13 total, 10 for intensional events).
NSL’s preference for verb-finalness (Flaherty, 2014) may not have allowed the
SVO pattern to emerge. However, NSL signers tend to provide more detail than
silent gesturers. As a result, many NSL strings were longer than strings observed
in silent gesture. When we took into account all strings (including those with
several verbs) and asked whether the Object preceded or followed target the
Verb, we found more utterances with VO sub-
strings (as opposed to OV) for intensional
events than for extensional events (Fig 1). A
logit mixed effects regression (with event type
as fixed effect and random effects for item and
signer) confirmed that strings containing VO
were uncommon for extensional events (β=-2.9,
SE=0.40, p<0.001), but significantly more likely
for intensional events (β=1.8, SE=0.45,
p<0.001). Thus, objects of intensional verbs are
more likely to follow those verbs than are
objects of extensionals not only in silent
gesture, but also in an emerging sign language.
I n this study, we find evidence for lab-
documented word order preferences in an
emergent natural language: objects precede verbs for extensional events, but
follow verbs for intensional events. However, this word order pattern is
manifested differently in Nicaraguan Sign because it interacts with NSL’s
language-internal constraint for verb finalness. A combination of lab and field-
based methodologies made this finding possible: without laboratory results, we
would not have looked at a wider semantic range of events in the field; without
field data, we would not have discovered the interaction between VO ordering
preference and existing natural language constraints.
Supported by a Royal Society NIF (MF), a British Academy Postdoctoral
Fellowship (MS), and NIH R01-DC000491 (SGM).
# 'VO' substrings per string
Figure 1. Proportion of extensional
and intensional events containing
Christensen, P., Fusaroli, R., Tylén, K. (2016). Environmental constraints
shaping constituent order in emerging communication systems: Structural
iconicity, interactive alignment and conventionalization. Cognition, 146, 67-
Flaherty, M. (2014). The Emergence of Argument Structural Devices in
Nicaraguan Sign Language (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest.
Gibson, E., Piantadosi, S. T., Brink, K., Bergen, L., Lim, E., & Saxe, R. (2013).
A noisy-channel account of crosslinguistc word-order variation
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