[PS-2.92] Word order and communicative efficiency

Fukumura, K.

University of Strathclyde

A central issue in language production research is whether and how speakers vary word order to facilitate communication. Here we examined orderings of prenominal modifiers in English. Participants described objects in visual arrays using colour and pattern modifiers to their addressee. Speakers produced pattern-before-colour orders (stripy green sock) (rather than colour-before-pattern orders, green stripy sock) more frequently when pattern distinguished the referent from referential alternatives more effectively than colour, indicating that speakers produce more discriminating modifiers early. Interestingly, such effect was found even with conjoined modifiers (stripy and green sock), where the modifiers had an equal syntactic status. Hence, the relative discriminatory power of modifiers may affect word order, not because speakers assign a higher syntactic status to a more discriminating modifier, but because they order such modifier to an earlier surface position. Furthermore, participants mimicked modifier orders produced by their partner (e.g., more pattern-before-colour responses after pattern-before-colour prime descriptions). Such priming was observed even between conjoined modifiers (spotty and blue sock) as primes and non-conjoined modifiers (stripy green sock) as targets. Hence, speakers produce contextually more-important modifiers early, thereby facilitating early referent identification. Such communicative efficiency may be driven by linear rather than hierarchical representations of expressions.