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More or Less Unnatural: Semantic Similarity Shapes the Learnability and Cross-Linguistic Distribution of Unnatural Syncretism in Morphological Paradigms


Saldana, Carmen; Herce, Borja; Bickel, Balthasar (2022). More or Less Unnatural: Semantic Similarity Shapes the Learnability and Cross-Linguistic Distribution of Unnatural Syncretism in Morphological Paradigms. Open Mind, 6:183-210.

Abstract

Morphological systems often reuse the same forms in different functions, creating what is known as syncretism. While syncretism varies greatly, certain cross-linguistic tendencies are apparent. Patterns where all syncretic forms share a morphological feature value (e.g., first person, or plural number) are most common cross-linguistically, and this preference is mirrored in results from learning experiments. While this suggests a general bias towards natural (featurally homogeneous) over unnatural (featurally heterogeneous) patterns, little is yet known about gradients in learnability and distributions of different kinds of unnatural patterns. In this paper we assess apparent cross-linguistic asymmetries between different types of unnatural patterns in person-number verbal agreement paradigms and test their learnability in an artificial language learning experiment. We find that the cross-linguistic recurrence of unnatural patterns of syncretism in person-number paradigms is proportional to the amount of shared feature values (i.e., similarity) amongst the syncretic forms. Our experimental results further suggest that the learnability of syncretic patterns also mirrors the paradigm’s degree of feature-value similarity. We propose that this gradient in learnability reflects a general bias towards similarity-based structure in morphological learning, which previous literature has shown to play a crucial role in word learning as well as in category and concept learning more generally. Rather than a dichotomous natural/unnatural distinction, our results thus support a more nuanced view of (un)naturalness in morphological paradigms and suggest that a preference for similarity-based structure during language learning might shape the worldwide transmission and typological distribution of patterns of syncretism.

Abstract

Morphological systems often reuse the same forms in different functions, creating what is known as syncretism. While syncretism varies greatly, certain cross-linguistic tendencies are apparent. Patterns where all syncretic forms share a morphological feature value (e.g., first person, or plural number) are most common cross-linguistically, and this preference is mirrored in results from learning experiments. While this suggests a general bias towards natural (featurally homogeneous) over unnatural (featurally heterogeneous) patterns, little is yet known about gradients in learnability and distributions of different kinds of unnatural patterns. In this paper we assess apparent cross-linguistic asymmetries between different types of unnatural patterns in person-number verbal agreement paradigms and test their learnability in an artificial language learning experiment. We find that the cross-linguistic recurrence of unnatural patterns of syncretism in person-number paradigms is proportional to the amount of shared feature values (i.e., similarity) amongst the syncretic forms. Our experimental results further suggest that the learnability of syncretic patterns also mirrors the paradigm’s degree of feature-value similarity. We propose that this gradient in learnability reflects a general bias towards similarity-based structure in morphological learning, which previous literature has shown to play a crucial role in word learning as well as in category and concept learning more generally. Rather than a dichotomous natural/unnatural distinction, our results thus support a more nuanced view of (un)naturalness in morphological paradigms and suggest that a preference for similarity-based structure during language learning might shape the worldwide transmission and typological distribution of patterns of syncretism.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Department of Comparative Language Science
06 Faculty of Arts > Zurich Center for Linguistics
Special Collections > NCCR Evolving Language
Special Collections > Centers of Competence > Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Language Evolution
Dewey Decimal Classification:490 Other languages
890 Other literatures
410 Linguistics
Uncontrolled Keywords:Cognitive Science, Linguistics and Language, Developmental and Educational Psychology, Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
Language:English
Date:30 October 2022
Deposited On:25 Oct 2022 15:26
Last Modified:19 Jan 2023 15:30
Publisher:MIT Press
ISSN:2470-2986
OA Status:Gold
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1162/opmi_a_00062
Project Information:
  • : FunderSNSF
  • : Grant ID51NF40_180888
  • : Project TitleNCCR Evolving Language (phase I)
  • Content: Published Version
  • Language: English
  • Licence: Creative Commons: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)