Word order, naturalness and conventionalisation: evidence from silent gesture
Myrte Vos
(University of Amsterdam)
Friday (April 21st), 14:15-15:15 (Poster presentation round)
'Café Noord' (
Matthias de Vrieshof coffee room)

Of the six possible ways to order Subject, Object and Verb, two - SOV and SVO -account for the constituent word order over 80% of the world’s languages. Why is that? Recent work in word order typology, creole languages, emerging sign languages, and improvised silent gesture suggests that SOV word order is a kind of natural 'default' (Goldin-Meadow et al. 2008). But if that is so, why is SVO word order nearly as prominent as SOV? One improvised silent gesture study, from Schouwstra & de Swart (2014), suggests that the usage of SOV versus SVO is influenced by the semantic content of the verb - specifically, by whether that verb is extensional (transitive and involves some action through space; e.g. 'throw') or intensional ('think'). Another study, by Marno, Langus and Nespor (2015) posits that SVO is preferred by the 'computational module' of human cognition, and that while improvised communication favors SOV, access to a lexicon frees up cognitive resources to use syntax, and "consequently SVO, the more efficient word order to express syntactic relations, emerges." In their improvised silent gesture task, wherein half the participants had to improvise their gesturing of simple transitive events and the other half were first taught a gesture lexicon before being asked to communicate, participants trained on a lexicon did indeed favor SVO. We reproduced Marno et al's experiment with only extensional events, as well as a third condition using randomly assigned, arbitrary gestures, to test the robustness of their result.