Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Alexander Martin (Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh)

Title: Cross-linguistic evidence for cognitive universals in the noun phrase

Abstract: Of the 24 possible orderings of the nominal modifiers Demonstrative, Numeral, Adjective and the Noun, two specific patterns dominate the typology: Dem Num Adj N (as in English) and its mirror order N Adj Num Dem (as in Thai). This has been argued to follow from a universal underlying structure in which Adj forms a constituent with N first, Num scopes over that constituent, and finally Dem takes widest scope. We refer to noun phrase orders that follow this structure as scope-isomorphic. To test for general scope-isomorphic preferences in language users and assess a possible asymmetry between pre- and postnominal modifiers, we tested two linguistic populations with different NP orderings (English and Thai). Learners were exposed to a new language where modifiers were placed on the opposite side of the noun from their native language (i.e., English speakers learned that modifiers in the new language were postnominal and Thai speakers that they were prenominal). Crucially, though, learners were exposed only to single-modifier NPs (e.g., ‘car green’ or ‘car this’) but were not shown how modifiers were ordered relative to one another in multiple modifier phrases. In a test phase, participants were asked how to translate phrases with multiple modifiers into the new language (e.g., ‘this green car’). Speakers of both languages overwhelmingly inferred scope-isomorphic patterns (i.e., they preferred ‘car green this’ over ‘car this green’). We additionally found that Thai participants showed a stronger preference for scope isomorphism, suggesting the possibility that prenominal orders which violate scope isomorphism are particularly dispreferred. We will discuss these results in light of syntactic theory which predicts a pre-/postnominal asymmetry, but will also consider the possible influence of L2 knowledge (specifically Thai speakers’ knowledge of English) on these results, and outline future studies designed to tackle this issue.


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Andres Karjus

Centre for Language Evolution

Aug 28 2018 -

Language evolution seminar

2018-08-28: Cross-linguistic evidence for cognitive universals in the noun phrase

Room 1.17, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD