There are times when a curiously odd relic of language presents us with a thread, which when pulled, reveals deep and general facts about human language. This paper unspools such a case. Prior to 1930, English speakers uniformly preferred male-before-female word order in conjoined nouns such as uncles and aunts; nephews and nieces; men and women. Since then, at least a half dozen items have systematically reversed their preferred order (e.g., aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews) while others have not (men and women). We review evidence that the unusual reversals began with mother and dad(dy) and spread to semantically and morphologically related binomials over a period of decades. The present work proposes that three aspects of cognitive accessibility combine to quantify the probability of A&B order: (1) the relative accessibility of the A&B terms individually, (2) competition from B&A order, and critically, (3) cluster strength (i.e., similarity to related A'&B' cases). The emergent cluster of female-first binomials highlights the influence of semantic neighborhoods in memory retrieval. We suggest that cognitive accessibility can be used to predict the word order of both familiar and novel binomials generally, as well as the diachronic change focused on here.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- American English
- cluster or neighborhood effect
- emergent generalization
- historical change