Learners' harmonic preferences are modulated by lexical retrieval difficulty

Yiyun Zhao, Masha Fedzechkina


Typological work has established the existence of language universals – features or combinations of features that (co-)occur in unrelated languages more frequently than expected by chance. The origins of language universals are a fundamental question in language sciences as these universals are considered a reflection of cognitive mechanisms underlying human language. In this study, we use a miniature artificial language learning paradigm to explore whether a well-known universal – a preference for harmonic word ordering between adpositional and verb phrases (i.e., placing the head in a consistent position with respect to the complements across the two phrase types) – originates in biases during language learning and whether this preference interacts with memory constraints (operationalized as lexical retrieval difficulty). We first trained participants on miniature languages containing adpositional phrases of a deterministic word order (either prepositional or postpositional inputs) and then briefly exposed them to simple transitive sentences (verb-subject-object and subject-object-verb order, equally frequent in the input). At test, we asked learners to describe simple transitive scenes. We found that in the hard lexical retrieval condition, learners exposed to a postpositional language showed a preference for harmonic ordering but learners of the prepositional language did not, which is only partially consistent to the typological distribution. In the easy lexical retrieval condition, learners of neither the postpositional nor prepositional language showed a preference for harmonic ordering, indicating that this preference is modulated by memory constraints.


harmonic ordering; statistical language universals; miniature artificial language learning; language evolution

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.3765/plsa.v5i1.4758

Copyright (c) 2020 Yiyun Zhao, Masha Fedzechkina

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