The emergence of systematic argument distinctions in artificial sign languages
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Description: Like spoken languages, sign languages use a range of linguistic tools to denote the relationship between a predicate and its arguments. One such tool is spatial agreement–the use of space to mark event participants. Spatial agreement has been likened to verbal agreement in spoken languages, but has also been highlighted as a modality-specific phenomenon. Interestingly, recent data from emerging sign languages suggest that systematic spatial modulation as a grammatical feature takes time to develop. We investigate the emergence of systematic argument marking–including spatial agreement–experimentally, investigating how artificial gestural systems evolve over ”generations” of participants in the lab. We find that participants converge on different strategies to disambiguate clause arguments, which become more consistent through the use and transmission of gestures. Though some strategies use spatial contrasts, the use of space is not inevitable, and, when it does occur, remains highly iconic. We discuss how our results connect with theoretical issues surrounding the analysis of spatial agreement in established and newly emerging sign languages, and the mechanisms behind its evolution.