Interpreting silent gesture: Cognitive biases and rational inference in emerging language systems

Marieke Schouwstra, H.E. De Swart, Bill Thompson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Natural languages make prolific use of conventional constituent-ordering patterns to indicate ‘who did what to whom’, yet the mechanisms through which these regu-larities arise are not well understood. A series of recent experiments demonstrates that, when prompted to express meanings through silent gesture, people bypass native language conventions, revealing apparent biases underpinning word order usage, based on the semantic properties of the information to be conveyed. We ex-tend the scope of these studies by focusing, experimentally and computationally, on the interpretation of silent gesture. We show cross-linguistic experimental evidence that people use variability in constituent order as a cue to obtain different interpretations. To illuminate the computational principles that govern interpretation of non-conventional communication, we derive a Bayesian model of interpretation via biased inductive inference, and estimate these biases from the experimental data. Our analyses suggest people’s interpretations balance the ambiguity that is characteristic of emerging language systems, with ordering preferences that are skewed and asymmetric, but defeasible.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12732
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number7
Early online date25 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019


  • silent gesture
  • word order
  • Bayesian inference
  • interpretation
  • semantics
  • cognitive biases


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