Language evolution seminar
Speaker: Naomi Lee (New York University)
Title: Learning (im)possible number syncretisms: investigating innate featural representations
Abstract: Prominent feature-based theories of number, primarily Harbour (2014, 2016) and Smith et al. (2019), assert that dual and plural form a natural class to the exclusion of singular, a prediction borne out in the cross-linguistic prevalence of dual-plural syncretisms. The differently structured theories make opposing predictions for the natural class membership of the singular value, with Harbour ruling out singular- plural (ABA) syncretism and Smith et al. excluding singular-dual (AAB) syncretism. However, a survey of 30 singular-dual-plural languages reveals that typological evidence for either pattern is relatively sparse.
I instead test these predictions experimentally using artificial language learning. 149 adults were trained on one of three fragment grammars: all had three number distinctions on nouns, but each displayed a different logically possible syncretism in verbal number agreement. Participants were asked to select the correct cardinality of referent on the basis of stimuli containing only the syncretic verbal forms. Learners of the dual-plural (ABB) syncretism performed significantly better than chance (p < 0.001), which bears out the common prediction of all discussed theories, thereby supporting the general relevance of feature- derived natural classes in morphological learning. Additionally, the significant relative disadvantage observed for the singular-dual (AAB) syncretism (p < 0.001) suggests specific support for a Smith et al.-like system where singular and dual are not a natural class.
Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution