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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The emergence of indexicality in an artificial language


We investigated the emergence of register-like indexical associations, whereby linguistic forms that are associated with groups of speakers acquire novel associations with contextual features of those groups. We employed an artificial-language paradigm in which participants were exposed to an “alien” language spoken by two alien species wearing two different ceremonial outfits. The language varied with respect to plural suffixes, such that one suffix was associated reliably with one species and outfit in training. We then tested participants on what associations they had acquired. In two experiments we manipulated which aliens wore which outfits in the test phase. Regardless of condition or length of training, participants associated suffixes strongly with aliens rather than clothing. In a third experiment we introduced a new alien species in the test phase. For these aliens, which participants had not seen during training, participants made a clear association based on outfit. These results show clearly ranked indexical (or proto-indexical) associations on the part of participants and lay clear groundwork for the experimental investigation of the emergence of indexical social meaning in language.

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