Investigating word order emergence: Constraints from cognition and communication

Marieke Schouwstra*, Danielle Naegeli, Simon Kirby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

How do cognitive biases and mechanisms from learning and use interact when a system of language conventions emerges? We investigate this question by focusing on how transitive events are conveyed in silent gesture production and interaction. Silent gesture experiments (in which participants improvise to use gesture but no speech) have been used to investigate cognitive biases that shape utterances produced in the absence of a conventional language system. In this mode of communication, participants do not follow the dominant order of their native language (e.g., Subject-Verb-Object), and instead condition the structure on the semantic properties of the events they are conveying. An important source of variability in structure in silent gesture is the property of reversibility. Reversible events typically have two animate participants whose roles can be reversed (girl kicks boy). Without a syntactic/conventional means of conveying who does what to whom, there is inherent unclarity about the agent and patient roles in the event (by contrast, this is less pressing for non-reversible events like girl kicks ball). In experiment 1 we test a novel, fine-grained analysis of reversibility. Presenting a silent gesture production experiment, we show that the variability in word order depends on two factors (properties of the verb and properties of the direct object) that together determine how reversible an event is. We relate our experimental results to principles from information theory, showing that our data support the “noisy channel” account of constituent order. In experiment 2, we focus on the influence of interaction on word order variability for reversible and non-reversible events. We show that when participants use silent gesture for communicative interaction, they become more consistent in their usage of word order over time, however, this pattern less pronounced for events that are classified as strongly non-reversible. We conclude that full consistency in word order is theoretically a good strategy, but word order use in practice is a more complex phenomenon.
Original languageEnglish
Article number805144
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 22 Apr 2022

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • information theory
  • interaction
  • reversible events
  • silent gesture
  • verb semantics
  • word order


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