The emergence of complexity in prosody and syntax

Wendy Sandler, Irit Meir, Svetlana Dachkovsky, Carol Padden, Mark Aronoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The relation between prosody and syntax is investigated here by tracing the emergence of each in a new language, Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language. We analyze the structure of narratives of four signers of this language: two older second generation signers, and two about 15 years younger. We find that younger signers produce prosodic cues to dependency between semantically related constituents, e.g., the two clauses of conditionals, revealing a type and degree of complexity in their language that is not frequent in that of the older pair. In these younger signers, several rhythmic and (facial) intonational cues are aligned at constituent boundaries, indicating the emergence of a grammatical system. There are no overt syntactic markers (such as complementizers) to relate clauses; prosody is the only clue. But this prosodic complexity is matched by syntactic complexity inside propositions in the younger signers, who are more likely to use pronouns as abstract grammatical markers of arguments, and to combine predicates with their arguments within in a constituent. As the prosodic means emerge for identifying constituent types and signaling dependency relations between them, the constituents themselves become increasingly complex. Finally, our study shows that the emergence of grammatical complexity is gradual.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2014-2033
Number of pages20
Issue number13
StatePublished - Oct 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by Israel Science Foundation grant 750/99-1, U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation grant 95-00310/2, and U.S. National Institutes of Health grant DC 6473. We wish to thank participants of two conferences at the Centre for General Linguistics in Berlin in 2009 for useful and thought-provoking comments: The Second Prosody-Syntax Interface Workshop; and Conference on Human Language and Structural Complexity. We also thank two anonymous Lingua reviewers for helpful observations and comments.


  • New sign language
  • Prosody
  • Sign language
  • Syntax

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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