Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speakers: Jenny Culbertson and Mora Maldonado (CLE, University of Edinburgh)

Title: Person of interest: Learnability and naturalness of person systems

Abstract: Person systems---typically exemplified in pronoun paradigms (e.g. me, you, us)---describe how languages categorize entities as a function of their role in speech context (i.e., speaker(s), addressee(s), other(s)). Like other linguistic category systems (e.g. color and kinship terms), not all ways of partitioning the person space into different forms are equally likely cross-linguistically. Indeed, while some partitions are extremely frequent, others are very rare or do not occur at all (Cysouw 2003).

Morpho-semantic approaches to person systems have aimed to provide an inventory of person features that generates all and only the attested partitions (Harley & Ritter 2002, Harbour 2016, Ackema & Neelman 2018, among others). One potential problem with allthese accounts is that the typological data they rely on is rather weak: not only the sample of languages is quite small, but also there are often inconsistencies in the way paradigms are classified.

To make up for this issue, we aim to provide a method for investigating person systems experimentally. Such an approach allow us not only to extend the presently sparse typological data, but also to test whether typologically attested partitions are more natural and easier to learn than unattested ones.

In this talk, we will present a series of artificial language learning experiments where we test whether typological frequency correlates with learnability of person paradigms.

We will start by focusing on first person systems (e.g., ‘I’ and ‘we’ in English), and test the general predictions of theories that posit a universal set of features to capture this space. Our results provide the first experimental evidence for feature-based theories of person systems. We will then present some ongoing research where we take a similar approach to investigate potential asymmetries between the first, second and third person(s).


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Andres Karjus

Centre for Language Evolution

Apr 02 2019 -

Language evolution seminar

2019-04-02: Person of interest: Learnability and naturalness of person systems

Room G32, Psychology Building, 7 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9JZ