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Our environment shapes our language

September 30, 2015
Aarhus University
In a series of experiments, researchers show that novel communication systems reflect a variety of environmental and interactional factors. These findings challenge long-established ideas that syntax is innate and strongly determined by cognitive biases.

"Previous studies indicate that when people are asked to represent simple events using only gestural signs, they show a strong preference for SOV order (subject -- object -- verb), even when they are native speakers of an SVO language such as English," explains Peer Christensen, the lead author of the paper and a PhD at the University of Lund.

"However, we show that by manipulating specific environmental and social-interactional factors we can influence whether participants will spontaneously produce SOV or SVO for communicating events."

The role of material and social surroundings

Study participants were asked to communicate stimuli depicting simple events to each other using only their hands. In response to events in which human agents manipulated objects, participants consistently used SOV to string together individual signs. However, when presented with object construction events, they instead used SVO. The researchers argue that the two syntactic patterns are motivated by iconicity, whereby the syntactic structure reflects inherent structural properties of the two event types.

"However, our environment is not simply the material surroundings about which we communicate: the communicative situation itself plays a crucial role too" Kristian Tylén, associate professor at the B.Sc. in Cognitive Science in Aarhus, adds.

"Indeed, we show that the way our interlocutors communicate constitutes a second constraint. If your interlocutor has just used a SVO structure, you are more likely to adapt and follow her lead, no matter what type of event you are talking about."

The third factor investigated was the frequency of different events that the participants had to gesture about.

The paper demonstrates how we can use simple lab experiments where participants solve dialogical tasks to inform foundational discussions about the evolution of communication systems such as language. "Our findings" Riccardo Fusaroli, IMC researcher, concludes "provide experimental evidence that we develop languages and signs to speak to each other about the world in a coordinated fashion, and that their structure is, to some extent, a reflection of the world and how we verbally interact."

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Materials provided by Aarhus University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Peer Christensen, Riccardo Fusaroli, Kristian Tylén. Environmental constraints shaping constituent order in emerging communication systems: Structural iconicity, interactive alignment and conventionalization. Cognition, 2016; 146: 67 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.09.004

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Aarhus University. "Our environment shapes our language." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 September 2015. <>.
Aarhus University. (2015, September 30). Our environment shapes our language. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 26, 2017 from
Aarhus University. "Our environment shapes our language." ScienceDaily. (accessed May 26, 2017).