Fiona Kirton

Project Title: Cognition, Communication and the Evolution of Word Order

My research concerns the evolution of structure in language. More specifically, I investigate the cognitive and communicative factors that influence the evolution of word order conventions for describing events.

Many languages use a conventionalized system of word order for indicating who is doing what to whom in an event. For example, an English speaker would understand that John and Mary play different roles in the events ‘John elbowed Mary’ and ‘Mary elbowed John’ because the words are arranged differently in each sentence. In the first, we understand that John is the one doing the elbowing, and in the second, he’s the one being elbowed.

Previous studies have found that when individuals describe events using a communication system that lacks structural conventions, different types of event elicit different word orders. In my research I seek to understand the mechanisms underlying these word order choices. In particular, I investigate how speaker perspective, event conceptualization and communication influence the way people structure their descriptions of events. Understanding these factors and how they interact will provide important insight into how word order conventions evolve within a speech or signing community.

Awarded: Carnegie PhD Scholarship

Field: Linguistics

University: University of Edinburgh

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