The effects of iconicity and conventionalisation on word order preferences

Yasamin Motamedi-Mousavi, Lucie Wolters, Marieke Schouwstra, Simon Kirby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Of the six possible orderings of the three main constituents of language (subject, verb, and object), two—SOV and SVO—are predominant cross-linguistically. Previous research using the silent gesture paradigm in which hearing participants produce or respond to gestures without speech has shown that different factors such as reversibility, salience, and animacy can affect the preferences for different orders. Here, we test whether participants’ preferences for orders that are conditioned on the semantics of the event change depending on (i) the iconicity of individual gestural elements and (ii) the prior knowledge of a conventional lexicon. Our findings demonstrate the same preference for semantically conditioned word order found in previous studies, specifically that SOV and SVO are preferred differentially for different types of events. We do not find that iconicity of individual gestures affects participants’ ordering preferences; however, we do find that learning a lexicon leads to a stronger preference for SVO-like orders overall. Finally, we compare our findings from English speakers, using an SVO-dominant language, with data from speakers of an SOV-dominant language, Turkish. We find that, while learning a lexicon leads to an increase in SVO preference for both sets of participants, this effect is mediated by language background and event type, suggesting that an interplay of factors together determines preferences for different ordering patterns. Taken together, our results support a view of word order as a gradient phenomenon responding to multiple biases.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13203
JournalCognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal
Issue number10
Early online date17 Oct 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Oct 2022


  • conventionalization
  • iconicity
  • silent gesture
  • word order


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