Cross-linguistic evidence for cognitive universals in the noun phrase

Alexander Martin, Theeraporn Ratitamkul, Klaus Abels, David Adger, Jennifer Culbertson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Noun phrase word order varies cross-linguistically, however, two distributional asymmetries have attracted substantial attention (i.a., Greenberg 1963, Cinque 2005). First, the most common orders place adjectives closest to the noun, then numerals, then demonstratives (e.g., N-Adj-Num-Dem). Second, exceptions to this are restricted to post-nominal position (e.g., N-Dem-Num-Adj, but not Adj-Num-Dem-N). These observations have been argued to reflect constraints on cognition. Here we report two experiments, following work by Culbertson & Adger (2014), providing additional support for this claim. We taught English- and Thai-speaking participants artificial languages in which the position of modifiers relative to the noun differed from their native order (post-nominal position in English, pre-nominal in Thai). We trained participants on single-modifier phrases, and asked them to extrapolate to multiple modifier phrases. We found that both populations infer relative orders of modifiers that conform to the tendency for closest proximity of adjectives, then numerals, then demonstratives. Further, we show that Thai participants, learning pre-nominal modifiers, exhibit a stronger such preference. These results track the typology closely and are consistent with the claim that noun phrase word order reflects properties of human cognition. We discuss future research needed to rule out alternative explanations for our findings, including prior language experience.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20180072
JournalLinguistics Vanguard
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 21 Sept 2019

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • syntax
  • typology
  • artificial language learning
  • universals
  • word order
  • noun phrase


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