From improvisation to learning: How naturalness and systematicity shape language evolution

Yasamin Motamedi*, Lucie Wolters, Danielle Naegeli, Simon Kirby, Marieke Schouwstra

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105206
Early online date7 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2022


  • language evolution
  • learning
  • naturalness
  • silent gesture
  • systematicity
  • word order


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