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Description: Agreement markers that refer to the same feature or argument tend to be found in the same position (e.g., all subject agreement markers as suffixes, all object agreement markers as prefixes). However, little is known about the exceptions to this trend: cases where different values of the same feature are marked in different positions in the word (i.e., positional splits). In this study, we explore the positional properties of subject and object person-number agreement markers in a phylogenetically diverse sample of 227 languages. We find that the recurrence of a positional split is proportional to its degree of naturalness, that is, to the amount of shared feature values amongst the forms with the same positional arrangement. Natural patterns (e.g., where prefixal forms all share SG and suffixal forms all share PL) are over-represented in natural languages compared to a random baseline. The most unnatural patterns are underrepresented, and splits with an intermediate level of unnaturalness occur at around chance levels. We hypothesise that this graded bias for naturalness is grounded in a preference for morphological similarity amongst semantically similar forms during language learning and transmission. To test this hypothesis we conducted two online artificial language learning experiments where we trained and tested participants on person-number verbal agreement paradigms of different sizes with positional splits of different degrees of naturalness. We found that their relative learnability is also gradient (proportional to the amount of meaning overlap), thus matching the observed cross-linguistic tendencies. Our findings support the notion that semantic similarity shapes the evolution and transmission of morphological structure and that it does so in a gradient way.

License: CC-By Attribution 4.0 International


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