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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Article number104585
Early online date16 Jan 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Jan 2021


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.

    Research areas

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

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