UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


EMSS PNAS Publication

When linearity prevails over hierarchy in syntax

Jana Willer Golda, Boban Arsenijevićb, Mia Batinićc, Michael Beckerd, Nermina Čordalijae, Marijana Kresićc, Nedžad Lekoe, Franc Lanko Marušičf, Tanja Milićevg, Nataša Milićevićg, Ivana Mitićb, Anita Peti-Stantićh, Branimir Stankovićb, Tina Šuligojf, Jelena Tušekh, and Andrew Nevinsa

Author Affiliations
aDivision of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, London WC1N 1PF, United Kingdom; bDepartment for Serbian language, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Niš, Niš 18000, Serbia; cDepartment of Linguistics, University of Zadar, Zadar 23000, Croatia; dDepartment of Linguistics, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794-4376; eDepartment of English, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Sarajevo, Sarajevo 71000, Bosnia and Herzegovina; fCenter for Cognitive Science of Language, University of Nova Gorica, Nova Gorica 5000, Slovenia; gDepartment of English Studies, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Novi Sad, Novi Sad 21000, Serbia; hDepartment of South Slavic languages and literatures, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Zagreb 10000, Croatia

Publication details
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PNAS
Proceedings Published ahead of print December 29, 2017.

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Syntactic distance is standardly measured hierarchically only by counting the nodes in a tree-like structure. The dominance of hierarchy over the other logically possible measure of distance—e.g., counting words in a linear order—stems from a large body of research. We show a strong preference for the linear strategy in coordination structures in South Slavic languages, with a design comparing agreement controllers that can come either before or after their target. A large-scale study over six geographically and linguistically distinct varieties discovered remarkable uniformity in this preference. Variation discovered was mostly intraindividual, strongly suggesting that a language can entertain synchronous “multiple grammars,” the most striking of which is the one requiring direct reference to linear order.

Hierarchical structure has been cherished as a grammatical universal. We use experimental methods to show where linear order is also a relevant syntactic relation. An identical methodology and design were used across six research sites on South Slavic languages. Experimental results show that in certain configurations, grammatical production can in fact favor linear order over hierarchical structure. However, these findings are limited to coordinate structures and distinct from the kind of production errors found with comparable configurations such as “attraction” errors. The results demonstrate that agreement morphology may be computed in a series of steps, one of which is partly independent from syntactic hierarchy.

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