The emergence of systematic argument distinctions in artificial sign languages

Yasamin Motamedi*, Kenny Smith, Marieke Schouwstra, Jennifer Culbertson, Simon Kirby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Word order is a key property by which languages indicate the relationship between a predicate and its arguments. However, sign languages use a number of other modality-specific tools in addition to word order such as spatial agreement, which has been likened to verbal agreement in spoken languages, and role shift, where the signer takes on characteristics of propositional agents. In particular, data from emerging sign languages suggest that, though some use of a conventional word order can appear within a few generations, systematic spatial modulation as a grammatical feature takes time to develop. We experimentally examine the emergence of systematic argument marking beyond word order, investigating how artificial gestural systems evolve over generations of participants in the lab. We find that participants converge on different strategies to disambiguate clause arguments, which become more consistent through the use and transmission of gestures; in some cases, this leads to conventionalized iconic spatial contrasts, comparable to those found in natural sign languages. We discuss how our results connect with theoretical issues surrounding the analysis of spatial agreement and role shift in established and newly emerging sign languages, and the possible mechanisms behind its evolution.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-98
JournalJournal of Language Evolution
Issue number2
Early online date18 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • iterated learning
  • communication
  • sign language
  • silent gesture
  • spatial reference


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