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Linguistics Vanguard

A Multimodal Journal for the Language Sciences

Editor-in-Chief: Bergs, Alexander / Cohn, Abigail C. / Good, Jeff

CiteScore 2018: 0.95

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Cross-linguistic evidence for cognitive universals in the noun phrase

Alexander Martin
  • Corresponding author
  • Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh EH8 9AD, UK
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/ Theeraporn Ratitamkul
  • Department of Linguistics, Chulalongkorn University, Phayathai Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand
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/ Klaus Abels
  • Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, Chandler House, 2 Wakefield Street, London WC1N 1PF, UK
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/ David Adger
  • School of Language, Linguistics and Film, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS, UK
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/ Jennifer Culbertson
  • Centre for Language Evolution, University of Edinburgh, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh EH8 9AD, UK
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Published Online: 2019-09-21 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/lingvan-2018-0072


Noun phrase word order varies cross-linguistically, however, two distributional asymmetries have attracted substantial attention. First, the most common orders place adjectives closest to the noun, then numerals, then demonstratives (e.g., N-Adj-Num-Dem). Second, exceptions to this are restricted to post-nominal position (e.g., N-Dem-Num-Adj, but not, for instance, Adj-Num-Dem-N). These observations have been argued to reflect constraints on cognition. Here we report on two experiments, providing support for this claim. We taught English- and Thai-speaking participants artificial languages in which the position of modifiers relative to the noun differed from their native order (post-nominal position in English, pre-nominal in Thai). We trained participants on single-modifier phrases, and asked them to extrapolate to multiple modifier phrases. We found that both populations infer relative orders of modifiers that conform to the tendency for closest proximity of adjectives, then numerals, then demonstratives. Further, we show that Thai participants, learning pre-nominal modifiers, exhibit a stronger such preference. These results track the typology closely and are consistent with the claim that noun phrase word order reflects properties of human cognition. We discuss future research needed to rule out alternative explanations for our findings, including prior language experience.

Keywords: syntax; typology; artificial language learning; universals; word order; noun phrase


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About the article

Received: 2019-01-11

Accepted: 2019-04-29

Published Online: 2019-09-21

Funding Source: Economic and Social Research Council

Award identifier / Grant number: ES/N018389/1

This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [Funder Id: http://dx.doi.org/10.13039/501100000269, grant number ES/N018389/1]. Materials and analysis scripts are available on the first author’s website.

Citation Information: Linguistics Vanguard, Volume 5, Issue 1, 20180072, ISSN (Online) 2199-174X, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/lingvan-2018-0072.

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