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Naturalness is gradient in morphological paradigms: Evidence from positional splits


Herce, Borja; Saldana, Carmen; Mansfield, John; Bickel, Balthasar (2023). Naturalness is gradient in morphological paradigms: Evidence from positional splits. Glossa, 8(1):online.

Abstract

Agreement markers that refer to the same feature or argument tend to be found in the same position (e.g., all subject agreement markers as suffixes, all object agreement markers as prefixes). However, little is known about the exceptions to this trend: cases where different values of the same feature are marked in different positions in the word (i.e., positional splits). In this study, we explore the positional properties of subject and object person-number agreement markers in a phylogenetically diverse sample of 227 languages. We find that the recurrence of a positional split is proportional to its degree of naturalness, that is, to the amount of shared feature values amongst the forms with the same positional arrangement. Natural patterns (e.g., where prefixal forms all share SG and suffixal forms all share PL) are over-represented in natural languages compared to a random baseline. The most unnatural patterns are underrepresented, and splits with an intermediate level of unnaturalness occur at around chance levels. We hypothesise that this graded bias for naturalness is grounded in a preference for morphological similarity amongst semantically similar forms during language learning. To test this hypothesis we conducted two online artificial language learning experiments where we trained and tested participants on person-number verbal agreement paradigms of different sizes with positional splits of different degrees of naturalness. We found that their relative learnability is also gradient, again proportional to the amount of feature value overlap, thus matching the observed cross-linguistic tendencies. Our findings support the notion that semantic similarity shapes the evolution of morphological structure in person-number verbal agreement systems and that it does so in a gradient way.

Abstract

Agreement markers that refer to the same feature or argument tend to be found in the same position (e.g., all subject agreement markers as suffixes, all object agreement markers as prefixes). However, little is known about the exceptions to this trend: cases where different values of the same feature are marked in different positions in the word (i.e., positional splits). In this study, we explore the positional properties of subject and object person-number agreement markers in a phylogenetically diverse sample of 227 languages. We find that the recurrence of a positional split is proportional to its degree of naturalness, that is, to the amount of shared feature values amongst the forms with the same positional arrangement. Natural patterns (e.g., where prefixal forms all share SG and suffixal forms all share PL) are over-represented in natural languages compared to a random baseline. The most unnatural patterns are underrepresented, and splits with an intermediate level of unnaturalness occur at around chance levels. We hypothesise that this graded bias for naturalness is grounded in a preference for morphological similarity amongst semantically similar forms during language learning. To test this hypothesis we conducted two online artificial language learning experiments where we trained and tested participants on person-number verbal agreement paradigms of different sizes with positional splits of different degrees of naturalness. We found that their relative learnability is also gradient, again proportional to the amount of feature value overlap, thus matching the observed cross-linguistic tendencies. Our findings support the notion that semantic similarity shapes the evolution of morphological structure in person-number verbal agreement systems and that it does so in a gradient way.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Department of Comparative Language Science
Special Collections > NCCR Evolving Language
Special Collections > Centers of Competence > Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Language Evolution
06 Faculty of Arts > Zurich Center for Linguistics
Dewey Decimal Classification:490 Other languages
890 Other literatures
410 Linguistics
Uncontrolled Keywords:Linguistics and Language, Language and Linguistics
Language:English
Date:29 June 2023
Deposited On:06 Jul 2023 10:50
Last Modified:29 Mar 2024 04:45
Publisher:Ubiquity Press
ISSN:2397-1835
OA Status:Gold
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.16995/glossa.9280
  • Content: Published Version
  • Language: English
  • Licence: Creative Commons: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)