Human Information Processing Shapes Language Change

Maryia Fedzechkina, Becky Chu, T. Florian Jaeger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Human languages exhibit both striking diversity and abstract commonalities. Whether these commonalities are shaped by potentially universal principles of human information processing has been of central interest in the language and psychological sciences. Research has identified one such abstract property in the domain of word order: Although sentence word-order preferences vary across languages, the superficially different orders result in short grammatical dependencies between words. Because dependencies are easier to process when they are short rather than long, these findings raise the possibility that languages are shaped by biases of human information processing. In the current study, we directly tested the hypothesized causal link. We found that learners exposed to novel miniature artificial languages that had unnecessarily long dependencies did not follow the surface preference of their native language but rather systematically restructured the input to reduce dependency lengths. These results provide direct evidence for a causal link between processing preferences in individual speakers and patterns in linguistic diversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)72-82
Number of pages11
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018


  • dependency length
  • language evolution
  • language processing
  • language structure
  • language universals
  • learning biases
  • open materials

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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