Potentially recursive structures emerge quickly when a new language community forms

Autor/a: KOCAB, Annemarie; SENGHAS, Ann; COPPOLA, Marie; SNEDEKER, Jesse
Año: 2023
Editorial: Cognition, 232, 105261
Tipo de código: Copyright
Soporte: Digital


Lingüística » Lingüística de otras Lenguas de Signos


Human languages can express an infinite number of thoughts despite having a finite set of words and rules. This is due, in part, to recursive structures, which allow us to embed one instance of a rule inside another. We investigated the origins of recursion by studying the development of Nicaraguan Sign Language (LSN), which emerged in the last 40 years and is not derived from any existing language. Before this, deaf individuals in Nicaragua lacked access to language models and each individual created their own gestural system, called homesign. We tested four groups: homesigners, who represent the point of origin, and the first three generations of LSN signers, who represent consecutive stages in the language's development. We used a task that was designed to elicit sentences with relative clauses, a device that allows for the recursive embedding of sentences inside of sentences (e.g., [the girl [who was drawing] removed the picture]). Signers in all three LSN cohorts consistently produced utterances that appeared to have embedded predicates (girl draw remove picture) which served the function of a relative clause (picking out the correct member of a set, based on previously mentioned information). Furthermore, in these utterances, the first verb was shorter than the second and shorter than the same verb in parallel unembedded structures. In contrast, homesigners produced similar utterances in embedded and unembedded contexts. They did not reintroduce previously mentioned information or produce reduced verb forms in the embedded context. These results demonstrate that syntactic embedding that is potentially recursive can emerge very early in a language. These embedded predicates, however, may not be widespread, or systematically marked, in homesign systems. This raises the possibility that the emergence of recursive linguistic structure is a consequence of interaction within a language community. These findings pave the way for future work which investigates the syntactic form of these embedded predicates and explores whether multiple levels of embedding are possible.