Knowledge of Language Transfers From Speech to Sign: Evidence From Doubling

Iris Berent, Outi Bat-El, Diane Brentari, Melanie Platt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Does knowledge of language transfer across language modalities? For example, can speakers who have had no sign language experience spontaneously project grammatical principles of English to American Sign Language (ASL) signs? To address this question, here, we explore a grammatical illusion. Using spoken language, we first show that a single word with doubling (e.g., trafraf) can elicit conflicting linguistic responses, depending on the level of linguistic analysis (phonology vs. morphology). We next show that speakers with no command of a sign language extend these same principles to novel ASL signs. Remarkably, the morphological analysis of ASL signs depends on the morphology of participants' spoken language. Speakers of Malayalam (a language with rich reduplicative morphology) prefer XX signs when doubling signals morphological plurality, whereas no such preference is seen in speakers of Mandarin (a language with no productive plural morphology). Our conclusions open up the possibility that some linguistic principles are amodal and abstract.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12809
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2020


  • Language universals
  • Morphology
  • Phonology
  • Reduplication
  • Sign language


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