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Colloquia Green

TESSA VERHOEF
– Iconicity and systematicity in the emergence of patterns in sign language –

In sign languages and gesture, systematic preferences have been found for the use of different iconic naming strategies when representing tools. In this talk, I will present experiments that were conducted to explore the influence of biases in gestural representation on the emergence of conventionalized patterns in sign languages. The first experiment maps out the initial biases people have for pairing ACTION and OBJECT concepts related to tools (e.g. ‘using a toothbrush’ and ‘a toothbrush’) with HANDLING (showing how you hold it) and INSTRUMENT (showing what it looks like) strategies in an online experiment with 720 participants. In line with earlier findings (Padden et al., 2015; Ortega & Ozyurek, 2016), we show that non-signers have a strong preference for HANDLING forms. We also find a strong preference for mapping HANDLING to ACTION and INSTRUMENT to OBJECT, demonstrating clear biases for use of iconic strategies. The second experiment investigates the effects of these biases on the learnability of artificial languages. In addition to reflecting naturalness on an item by item basis, languages can also vary in systematicity across sets of items (i.e. the extent to which all ACTIONS pattern the same way, and all OBJECTS pattern the same way).  As expected, we found unsystematic languages to be harder to learn than systematic ones. Surprisingly, languages that are systematic, but with a mappings that violates the bias, seem just as learnable as systematic languages. Moreover, participants seem to need only a few examples before they detect and accept the unexpected pattern. The patterns we see in natural sign languages are often only partially systematic though, therefore the third experiment explores the learnability and direction of change in artificial languages that merely show tendencies towards systematic patterns. Here we see a clear influence of the tension between initial preferences and systematicity. Together, these studies help improve our understanding of the subtle interplay between learning biases and gestural preferences and how these affect the emergence of patterns in language.

February 2nd | MPI 163 | 15.45 – 17.00

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