Constituent order in silent gesture reflects the perspective of the producer

Fiona Kirton, Marieke Schouwstra, Jennifer Culbertson, Kenny Smith, Simon Kirby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Understanding the relationship between human cognition and linguistic structure is a central theme in language evolution research. Numerous studies have investigated this question using the silent gesture paradigm in which participants describe events using only gesture and no speech. Research using this paradigm has found that Agent–Patient–Action (APV) is the most commonly produced gesture order, regardless of the producer’s native language. However, studies have uncovered a range of factors that influence ordering preferences. One such factor is salience, which has been suggested as a key determiner of word order. Specifically, humans, who are typically agents, are more salient than inanimate objects, so tend to be mentioned first. In this study, we investigated the role of salience in more detail and asked whether manipulating the salience of a human agent would modulate the tendency to express humans before objects. We found, first, that APV was less common than expected based on previous literature. Secondly, salience influenced the relative ordering of the patient and action, but not the agent and patient. For events involving a non-salient agent, participants typically expressed the patient before the action and vice versa for salient agents. Thirdly, participants typically omitted non-salient agents from their descriptions. We present details of a novel computational solution that infers the orders participants would have produced had they expressed all three constituents on every trial. Our analysis showed that events involving salient agents tended to elicit AVP; those involving a non-salient agent were typically described with APV, modulated by a strong tendency to omit the agent. We argue that these findings provide evidence that the effect of salience is realized through its effect on the perspective from which a producer frames an event
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)54–76
JournalJournal of Language Evolution
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 20 Mar 2021


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