Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Fang Wang (CLE, University of Edinburgh)

Title: Typology reflects learning biases for Cross-Category Harmony

Abstract: Typological evidence (Greenberg 1963, Dryer 1992) suggests that word order is correlated across different types of phrases, that is, heads tend to be ordered consistently relative to dependents (i.e., head-initial or head-final). This general tendency is called Cross-Category Harmony (Hawkins 1980). There is a long history of claims that these word order correlations are driven by cognitive factors– like a bias favouring consistency, or simplicity (e.g., Vennemann 1976, Chomsky 1988, Hawkins 1994, 2004, Pater 2012, Culbertson et al. 2012, Culbertson & Kirby 2016). At the same time, there are credible alternative explanations, including a common diachronic source for heads that are aligned (Givón 1979, Aristar 1991, Collins 2019). To link the typology to cognition, we need more than typological data (Kirby 1999, Culbertson 2012, Ladd et al. 2014). By using artificial language learning experiment, previous work has shown that harmony is preferred by learners acquiring the order of modifiers within the noun phrase (Culbertson et al. 2012), but prior work has largely neglected harmonic patterns that truly cut across categories.

In this talk, we will present two artificial language learning experiments testing Cross-Category Harmony between verb phrase (VP) and adpositional phrase (PP) and between VP and adjective phrase (AP). These two cases are critically different: there is strong typological evidence for the former but none for the latter (Dryer, 1992). Our results show that there is a strong learning preference for harmonic orders between VP and PP, regardless of whether VP order was VO or OV and whether the participants’ native language has hormonic order or mixed orders. By contrast, there is a weaker preference for harmony between VP and AP only when the order matches participants’ native language order. Our results suggest that an underlying cognitive bias for harmony may (at least in part) drive typology. We propose that the difference in the strength of preference for harmony across these phrase types might be attributed to the different degree of cross-category similarities.


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Andres Karjus

Centre for Language Evolution

Nov 05 2019 -

Language evolution seminar

2019-11-05: Typology reflects learning biases for Cross-Category Harmony

Room 5.02, Bayes Centre, 47 Potterrow, Edinburgh, EH8 9BT