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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Nov 29;113(48):13702-13707. Epub 2016 Nov 11.

The double identity of linguistic doubling.

Author information

Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115;
Department of Linguistics, Tel-Aviv University, Tel-Aviv 69978, Israel.
Department of Linguistics, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637.
Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115.
Department of Education, Western Galilee College, Akko 24121, Israel.
The Center for the Study of Society, University of Haifa, Haifa 31905, Israel.


Does knowledge of language consist of abstract principles, or is it fully embodied in the sensorimotor system? To address this question, we investigate the double identity of doubling (e.g., slaflaf, or generally, XX; where X stands for a phonological constituent). Across languages, doubling is known to elicit conflicting preferences at different levels of linguistic analysis (phonology vs. morphology). Here, we show that these preferences are active in the brains of individual speakers, and they are demonstrably distinct from sensorimotor pressures. We first demonstrate that doubling in novel English words elicits divergent percepts: Viewed as meaningless (phonological) forms, doubling is disliked (e.g., slaflaf < slafmak), but once doubling in form is systematically linked to meaning (e.g., slaf = ball, slaflaf = balls), the doubling aversion shifts into a reliable (morphological) preference. We next show that sign-naive speakers spontaneously project these principles to novel signs in American Sign Language, and their capacity to do so depends on the structure of their spoken language (English vs. Hebrew). These results demonstrate that linguistic preferences doubly dissociate from sensorimotor demands: A single stimulus can elicit diverse percepts, yet these percepts are invariant across stimulus modality--for speech and signs. These conclusions are in line with the possibility that some linguistic principles are abstract, and they apply broadly across language modality.


embodiment; language universals; morphology; phonology; sign language

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