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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Syntactic harmony arises from a domain-general learning bias


Syntactic harmony occurs when heads and dependents align within and across different types of phrases in a language. Harmony is a well-known (statistical) typological universal: in most languages, many if not all heads and dependents are consistently ordered (i.e., either head-dependent, or dependent-head). Despite decades of work, from every conceivable theoretical perspective, the origins of syntactic harmony remain opaque. However, recent work using artificial language learning has suggested that harmonic patterns are easier to learn than their non-harmonic counter-parts. Thus at least part of the explanation for this tendency may be linked to learning. Here, we explore whether the mechanism behind the learning bias for syntactic harmony is fundamentally domain-general by instantiating harmony in non-linguistic stimuli. Our findings support the claim that the origins of syntactic harmony lie in a domain-general bias for simplicity acting on linearized, language-specific categories.

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