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Category: Communication

Description: Homophony (i.e, multiple meanings expressed by the same form) is ubiquitous across the world’s languages. Despite its pervasiveness, not all instances of homophony are equally likely, which suggests that homophony is unlikely to be accidental. There is a growing body of literature which aims to thoroughly examine cross-linguistic regularities in patterns of homophony and explain these from constraints in language learning and use, both at the lexical and morphosyntactic levels. Here, we examine a specific case of homophony in pronominal paradigms, that is, the lack of a number distinction (singular vs plural) for a given person value (first, second and third), a phenomenon coined as horizontal homophony. Cysouw (2003) suggested that a lack of number distinction is more likely to be found in third person (i.e., 3SG=3PL) than in second (i.e., 2SG=2PL), and it is least frequently found in first person (i.e., 1SG=1PL). We refer to this generalisation as the Horizontal Homophony Hierarchy: 3 > 2 > 1 (where > represents frequency inequality). This generalisation was nevertheless only made via qualitative description and by raw counts, and merely described without motivated explanation. In this study we take a step back and present additional evidence sup- porting the Horizontal Homophony Hierarchy. First, we as- certain the robustness of this typological tendency through a statistical analysis using the largest cross-linguistic database of pronominal paradigms to date (926 languages from 229 different families). Next, we explore whether the Horizontal Homophony Hierarchy has a corresponding learning cor- relate, which would indicate that this asymmetry is at least partly rooted in a cognitive bias. Specifically, we examine asymmetries in how easily adult humans learn different types of horizontal homophony in an artificial language learning experiment. The results from our typological analysis corroborate a hierarchy of horizontal homophony 3 > 2 > 1 in the world’s languages. However, our experimental results provide evidence against a learning bias underlying the hierarchy, thus suggesting that motivated explanations of the typology (if any) are more likely to be found in alternative pressures such as communicative need and efficiency.

License: CC-By Attribution 4.0 International


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