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Do we see word order patterns from silent gesture studies in a new natural language?



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*Molly Flaherty:
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).
extensional intensional
Event type
# 'VO' substrings per string
Figure 1. Proportion of extensional
and intensional events containing
‘Verb-Object’ substrings.
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
Psychological Science, 24(7), 1079-1088.
Goldin-Meadow, S., So, W. C., Ozyurek, A., & Mylander, C. (2008). The
natural order of events: How speakers of different languages represent events
nonverbally. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA,
105(27), 9163-9168.
Schouwstra, M. & de Swart, H. The semantic origins of word order. Cognition,
131(3), 431-436.
Schouwstra, M., Smith, K., & Kirby, S. From natural order to convention in
silent gesture. In The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11th
International Conference (EVOLANG11). Roberts, S. G., Cuskley, C.,
McCrohon, L., Barceló-Coblijn, L., Fehrer, O. & Verhoef, T. (eds).
... However, few natural languages report such semantically conditioned ordering preferences, instead favoring systematic ordering patterns, where the same word order is used regardless of event semantics. More recently, evidence from two sign languages has demonstrated that such a distinction can emerge and persist in natural languages; research on both Brazilian Sign Language (Libras) and Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL) has shown signers producing semantically conditioned ordering patterns similar to those found in laboratory experiments (Flaherty, Schouwstra, & Goldin-Meadow, 2018;Napoli, Spence, & Quadros, 2017). ...
... In addition, the semantically conditioned ordering preference we find here and in other studies is not yet widely reported in natural languages but has been thus far reported in two sign languages: Libras (Napoli et al., 2017), and NSL (Flaherty et al., 2018). Sign languages are highly visually iconic (Emmorey, 2014;P. ...
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Of the six possible orderings of the three main constituents of language (subject, verb, and object), two-SOV and SVO-are predominant cross-linguistically. Previous research using the silent gesture paradigm in which hearing participants produce or respond to gestures without speech has shown that different factors such as reversibility, salience, and animacy can affect the preferences for different orders. Here, we test whether participants' preferences for orders that are conditioned on the semantics of the event change depending on (i) the iconicity of individual gestural elements and (ii) the prior knowledge of a conventional lexicon. Our findings demonstrate the same preference for semantically conditioned word order found in previous studies, specifically that SOV and SVO are preferred differentially for different types of events. We do not find that iconicity of individual gestures affects participants' ordering preferences; however, we do find that learning a lexicon leads to a stronger preference for SVO-like orders overall. Finally, we compare our findings from English speakers, using an SVO-dominant language, with data from speakers of an SOV-dominant language, Turkish. We find that, while learning a lexicon leads to an increase in SVO preference for both sets of participants, this effect is mediated by language background and event type, suggesting that an interplay of factors together determines preferences for different ordering patterns. Taken together, our results support a view of word order as a gradient phenomenon responding to multiple biases.
Silent gesture studies, in which hearing participants from different linguistic backgrounds produce gestures to communicate events, have been used to test hypotheses about the cognitive biases that govern cross-linguistic word order preferences. In particular, the differential use of SOV and SVO order to communicate, respectively, extensional events (where the direct object exists independently of the event; e.g., girl throws ball) and intensional events (where the meaning of the direct object is potentially dependent on the verb; e.g., girl thinks of ball), has been suggested to represent a natural preference, demonstrated in improvisation contexts. However, natural languages tend to prefer systematic word orders, where a single order is used regardless of the event being communicated. We present a series of studies that investigate ordering preferences for SOV and SVO orders using an online forced-choice experiment, where English-speaking participants select orders for different events i) in the absence of conventions and ii) after learning event-order mappings in different frequencies in a regularisation experiment. Our results show that natural ordering preferences arise in the absence of conventions, replicating previous findings from production experiments. In addition, we show that participants regularise the input they learn in the manual modality in two ways, such that, while the preference for systematic order patterns increases through learning, it exists in competition with the natural ordering preference, that conditions order on the semantics of the event. Using our experimental data in a computational model of cultural transmission, we show that this pattern is expected to persist over generations, suggesting that we should expect to see evidence of semantically-conditioned word order variability in at least some languages.
Full-text available
Where does linguistic structure come from? Recent gesture elicitation studies have indicated that constituent order (corresponding to for instance subject–verb–object, or SVO in English) may be heavily influenced by human cognitive biases constraining gesture production and transmission. Here we explore the alternative hypothesis that syntactic patterns are motivated by multiple environmental and social–interactional constraints that are external to the cognitive domain. In three experiments, we systematically investigate different motivations for structure in the gestural communication of simple transitive events. The first experiment indicates that, if participants communicate about different types of events, manipulation events (e.g. someone throwing a cake) and construction events (e.g. someone baking a cake), they spontaneously and systematically produce different constituent orders, SOV and SVO respectively, thus following the principle of structural iconicity. The second experiment shows that participants’ choice of constituent order is also reliably influenced by social–interactional forces of interactive alignment, that is, the tendency to re-use an interlocutor’s previous choice of constituent order, thus potentially overriding affordances for iconicity. Lastly, the third experiment finds that the relative frequency distribution of referent event types motivates the stabilization and conventionalization of a single constituent order for the communication of different types of events. Together, our results demonstrate that constituent order in emerging gestural communication systems is shaped and stabilized in response to multiple external environmental and social factors: structural iconicity, interactive alignment and distributional frequency.
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To test whether the language we speak influences our behavior even when we are not speaking, we asked speakers of four languages differing in their predominant word orders (English, Turkish, Spanish, and Chinese) to perform two nonverbal tasks: a communicative task (describing an event by using gesture without speech) and a noncommunicative task (reconstructing an event with pictures). We found that the word orders speakers used in their everyday speech did not influence their nonverbal behavior. Surprisingly, speakers of all four languages used the same order and on both nonverbal tasks. This order, actor–patient–act, is analogous to the subject–object–verb pattern found in many languages of the world and, importantly, in newly developing gestural languages. The findings provide evidence for a natural order that we impose on events when describing and reconstructing them nonverbally and exploit when constructing language anew. • gesture • language genesis • sign language • word order
Where do the different sentence orders in the languages of the world come from? Recently, it has been suggested that there is a basic sentence order, SOV (Subject-Object-Verb), which was the starting point for other sentence orders. Backup for this claim was found in newly emerging languages, as well as in experiments where people are asked to convey simple meanings in improvised gesture production. In both cases, researchers found that the predominant word order is SOV. Recent literature has shown that the pragmatic rule 'Agent first' drives the preference for S initial word order, but this rule does not decide between SOV and SVO. This paper presents experimental evidence for grounding the word order that emerges in gesture production in semantic properties of the message to be conveyed. We focus on the role of the verb, and argue that the preference for SOV word order reported in earlier experiments is due to the use of extensional verbs (e.g. throw). With intensional verbs like think, the object is dependent on the agent's thought, and our experiment confirms that such verbs lead to a preference for SVO instead. We conclude that the meaning of the verb plays a crucial role in the sequencing of utterances in emerging language systems. This finding is relevant for the debate on language evolution, because it suggests that semantics underlies the early formation of syntactic rules.
The distribution of word orders across languages is highly nonuniform, with subject-verb-object (SVO) and subject-object-verb (SOV) orders being prevalent. Recent work suggests that the SOV order may be the default in human language. Why, then, is SVO order so common? We hypothesize that SOV/SVO variation can be explained by language users' sensitivity to the possibility of noise corrupting the linguistic signal. In particular, the noisy-channel hypothesis predicts a shift from the default SOV order to SVO order for semantically reversible events, for which potential ambiguity arises in SOV order because two plausible agents appear on the same side of the verb. We found support for this prediction in three languages (English, Japanese, and Korean) by using a gesture-production task, which reflects word-order preferences largely independent of native language. Other patterns of crosslinguistic variation (e.g., the prevalence of case marking in SOV languages and its relative absence in SVO languages) also straightforwardly follow from the noisy-channel hypothesis.
The Emergence of Argument Structural Devices in Nicaraguan Sign Language (Doctoral Dissertation)
  • M Flaherty
Flaherty, M. (2014). The Emergence of Argument Structural Devices in Nicaraguan Sign Language (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest.
From natural order to convention in silent gesture
  • M Schouwstra
  • K Smith
  • S Kirby
  • S G Roberts
  • C Cuskley
  • L Mccrohon
  • L Barceló-Coblijn
Schouwstra, M., Smith, K., & Kirby, S. From natural order to convention in silent gesture. In The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 11 th International Conference (EVOLANG11). Roberts, S. G., Cuskley, C., McCrohon, L., Barceló-Coblijn, L., Fehrer, O. & Verhoef, T. (eds).