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Open Mind

2017, Vol. 1, No. 2, Pages 91-100
(doi: 10.1162/OPMI_a_00010)
© 2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license
Innovation of Word Order Harmony Across Development
Article PDF (530.39 KB)
The tendency for languages to use harmonic word order patterns—orders that place heads in a consistent position with respect to modifiers or other dependents—has been noted since the 1960s. As with many other statistical typological tendencies, there has been debate regarding whether harmony reflects properties of human cognition or forces external to it. Recent research using laboratory language learning has shown that children and adults find harmonic patterns easier to learn than nonharmonic patterns (Culbertson & Newport, 2015; Culbertson, Smolensky, & Legendre, 2012). This supports a link between learning and typological frequency: if harmonic patterns are easier to learn, while nonharmonic patterns are more likely to be targets of change, then, all things equal, harmonic patterns will be more frequent in the world’s languages. However, these previous studies relied on variation in the input as a mechanism for change in the lab; learners were exposed to variable word order, allowing them to shift the frequencies of different orders so that harmonic patterns became more frequent. Here we teach adult and child learners languages that are consistently nonharmonic, with no variation. While adults perfectly maintain these consistently nonharmonic patterns, young child learners innovate novel orders, changing nonharmonic patterns into harmonic ones.