Marieke Schouwstra, Assistant Professor in cognitive science and artificial intelligence at the ILLC, UvA, is the guest speaker at the online ACLC seminar on Friday 26 March 2021 from 16:15 till 17:30.
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Semantic conditioning and regularity: evidence from artificial sign language learning and Nicaraguan Sign Language
What are the factors that shape the emergence of linguistic conventions? I will present recent work that hypothesises that the very first stages of language evolution involve communicative strategies which are improvised on an item-by-item basis. However, as language is transmitted culturally, it begins to exhibit system-wide structural conventions.
In this talk I will use basic word order as a lens to examine two factors that interact in the emergence of linguistic rules: semantic naturalness and regularity. Semantic naturalness: the preference for word orders that transparently reflect the meaning of what is being communicated (see Schouwstra & de Swart, 2014). Regularity: the preference for consistency in word order throughout (parts of) a system.
I will present results from a recent experiment (collaborative work with Yasamin Motamedi, Danielle Naegeli, Lucie Wolters, and Simon Kirby) that combines silent gesture with artificial language learning. I will show that participants, when they learn artificial gestured languages, they increase their regularity. However, at the same time, some level of naturalness persists. A Markov chain calculation on learner outputs suggests that this semantic conditioning of word order will never disappear completely.
I will discuss these findings in the light of data from the field, from Nicaraguan Sign Language (collaborative work with Molly Flaherty and Susan Goldin-Meadow). Here I will show a similar pattern: even though NSL has a convention that favours V-final constructions (regularity), signers sometimes deviate from this convention, and when they do so, they favour semantic naturalness, just like our lab participants.
This bundling of data, from the field and from the lab, casts light on the mechanisms involved in the very early stages of language emergence – mechanisms which eventually lead to the structuring of conventions we see across languages (signed or spoken)*.
* I have extra data to show, for those who are wondering about the modality generality of my conclusions.