Semantic influences on emergent preferences of word order: Evidence from silent gesture

AbstractAcross the world’s languages, some word orders are more common. We focus on noun phrases, where it is more common for adjectives to follow the noun than to precede it. Because the interpretation of adjectives depends on the noun they modify, we propose and evaluate the new hypothesis that the order N-ADJ is more prevalent because it is beneficial for semantic processing. In a silent gesture task, speakers of four typologically unrelated languages (English, Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish) communicated noun phrase meanings to a partner. We find, first, that our task tracks the typologically preferred orders of nouns, adjectives and numerals in the noun phrase. More importantly, we find support for our semantic processing hypothesis: size adjectives, whose interpretation depend more on the noun they modify, were more likely to be gestured after the noun than shape adjectives whose interpretation is less dependent on the noun they modify.

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