The seeds of the noun–verb distinction in the manual modality: Improvisation and interaction in the emergence of grammatical categories

Yasamin Motamedi*, Kathryn Montemurro, Natasha Abner, Molly Flaherty, Simon Kirby, Susan Goldin-Meadow

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

The noun–verb distinction has long been considered a fundamental property of human language, and has been found in some form even in the earliest stages of language emergence, including homesign and the early generations of emerging sign languages. We present two experimental studies that use silent gesture to investigate how noun–verb distinctions develop in the manual modality through two key processes: (i) improvising using novel signals by individuals, and (ii) using those signals in the interaction between communicators. We operationalise communicative interaction in two ways: a setting in which members of the dyad were in separate booths and were given a comprehension test after each stimulus vs. a more naturalistic face-to-face conversation without comprehension checks. There were few differences between the two conditions, highlighting the robustness of the paradigm. Our findings from both experiments reflect patterns found in naturally emerging sign languages. Some formal distinctions arise in the earliest stages of improvisation and do not require interaction to develop. However, the full range of formal distinctions between nouns and verbs found in naturally emerging language did not appear with either improvisation or interaction, suggesting that transmitting the language to a new generation of learners might be necessary for these properties to emerge.
Original languageEnglish
Article number95
JournalLanguages
Volume7
Issue number2
Early online date11 Apr 2022
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Keywords

  • grammatical categories
  • iconicity
  • improvisation
  • interaction
  • sign language emergence
  • silent gesture

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