The emergence of word-internal repetition through iterated learning: Explaining the mismatch between learning biases and language design

Mitsuhiko Ota, Aitor San José, Kenny Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

The idea that natural language is shaped by biases in learning plays a key role in our understanding of how human language is structured, but its corollary that there should be a correspondence between typological generalisations and ease of acquisition is not always supported. For example, natural languages tend to avoid close repetitions of consonants within a word, but developmental evidence suggests that, if anything, words containing sound repetitions are more, not less, likely to be acquired than those without. In this study, we use word-internal repetition as a test case to provide a cultural evolutionary explanation of when and how learning biases impact on language design. Two artificial language experiments showed that adult speakers possess a bias for both consonant and vowel repetitions when learning novel words, but the effects of this bias were observable in language transmission only when there was a relatively high learning pressure on the lexicon. Based on these results, we argue that whether the design of a language reflects biases in learning depends on the relative strength of pressures from learnability and communication efficiency exerted on the linguistic system during cultural transmission.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104585
JournalCognition
Volume210
Early online date16 Jan 2021
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Jan 2021

Keywords

  • learnability
  • language typology
  • cultural transmission
  • iterated learning
  • sound repitition

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