Word Order Research Paper

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As is well known, words in clauses and phrases are not strung together in a random fashion but are ordered in a communicatively significant way. Thus, for example, John hit Mary does not mean the same thing as Mary hit John. Moreover,  the word orderings that are communicatively   significant  are  not  cross-linguistically uniform. Thus, whereas in English neither of the events  described  in the  above  two  italicized  clauses could be expressed with the verb in initial position, i.e., as Hit Mary John, this is precisely the order of words that  would be used in Samoan  or Berber. The nature of the word  order  patterns  found  within  and  across languages and the factors underlying their occurrence and  distribution has been a topic  of intensive study from a number  of different  perspectives.  This article provides  an  overview of functional—typological research  on word  order  concentrating on three  issues, namely, the classification of languages in terms of their basic word order,  the determination of the degree of language-internal word  order  variation, and  the  attempts  to  formulate   a  unifying  principle  of  order capable of accounting for both cross-linguistic and language internal  word order patterns.

1.    Basic Word Order Typology

1.1    The Clause

Ever since Greenberg (1963) it has been the custom to classify the clausal word order of a language in terms of the location of the verb and its arguments relative to each other in transitive clauses (as opposed to intransitive or ditransitive ones) into one of the following six types: SOV, SVO, VSO, VOS, OVS, OSV, where S stands  for subject, O for object, and V for verb. The transitive  clauses which have served as the basis for word order classification are active, positive, declarative clauses with two nominal (not pronominal) participants, a definite  human  agent,  and  a definite nonhuman patient such as The man killed the snake, or The girl extinguished the fire. Greenberg took the order obtaining in such clauses to be the basic order  of a language. For languages exhibiting more than one arrangement of the S, O, and V in the relevant type of clauses, the basic order was identified as the statistically dominant order.

Nowadays   it  is generally  recognized  that  not  all languages  fall into  one of the  six word-order types. First of all, there are languages which simply lack transitive clauses with two overt NP participants, such as Puget Salish. Second, in many other languages, though clauses with two overt nominal participants do exist, they  are  quite  rare,  as both  of the  arguments must, or tend to, be expressed by pronominal affixes on the verb or by clitics elsewhere in the clause. For example, in her analysis of narrative texts in the South American  language, Yagua,  Payne (1990) found only 45 transitive  clauses with two overt  nominal  participants,  which constitutes  less than  10 percent  of the transitive  clauses (463) and  only 3 percent  of all the clauses  (1516) in the  texts  considered.  In  such  languages,  it  may  not  always  be possible  to  discern  a clearly   dominant  order   among   the   verb   and   its nominal  arguments. Dryer  (1997) suggests  that  the basic order should be at least twice as frequent  as the order  or orders  with which it contrasts. In terms  of such a criterion, none of the transitive orders in Yagua qualify  as basic,  as the  frequencies  noted  by Payne were: VSO (19), SVO (15), and  OVS (11). The third type of languages  which may fall outside the six-way typology   are  languages   in  which,  while  transitive clauses with two overt nominal  participants are quite frequent, no single order may unequivocally  be dominant,   as  the  ordering   of  constituents  may  be  determined not by their grammatical relations but rather by their pragmatic  status and discourse role.

In view of the above, several modifications of Greenberg’s  typology  are  currently  in  use.  One  involves using double classifications  such as VSO/VOS or SVO/VSO. Another  involves augmenting  the six-way  typology  by  a  seventh  type,  namely,  no  basic order. A third modification consists in reanalyzing the six orders in terms of a three-way  opposition of verb position   into   verb-initial,   verb-medial,   and   verbfinal. The most radical modification is that  suggested by Dryer (1997), who argues for replacing the six-way typology by two separate two-way typologies of SV vs. VS and OV vs. VO, which together  define four types: VS & VO, SV & VO, SV & OV, and VS & OV. While this typology  also concerns  the order  of nominals  in transitive  clauses, it differs from  all of the above  in being based on the presence of only one nominal participant, as  opposed   to  two.  Accordingly,   it  is more  widely applicable  and  easier to apply than  the six-way typology.

Despite the problems posed in classifying some languages  in terms of their basic transitive  order,  the cross-linguistic   investigations   conducted   since  the 1960s identify the same basic word order  preferences consistently;  the  most  common  basic  order  is SOV (+ / – 45 percent), followed closely by SVO ( + / – 35 percent),  and then VSO ( + / -10 percent).  The three object-before-subject orders are all highly uncommon as  basic  orders,  with  VOS  occurring  slightly  more frequently  than OVS, and OSV being extremely rare.

Turning  to the basic order  in other  than  transitive clauses,  with  few  exceptions  (e.g.,  Salinan,  Woods Cree, Makushi),  the basic order of the sole argument of the intransitive  verb is the same as that  of the S argument of  a  transitive  clause.  Consequently, the classification   of  a  language’s  transitive   order   also covers that of intransitive  clauses. This also holds to a large extent for ditransitive clauses, i.e., clauses featuring, in addition  to an agent  and  patient,  a recipient (e.g., Mother gave the baby a toy.) Again with relatively few exceptions (e.g., Nadeb,  Trumai,  Yoruba)  recipients tend to be placed on the same side of the verb as the O in transitive  clauses, and  typically  occur  contiguous to the patient.  According to Primus (1997), in the basic order recipients are never separated from the patient  by the agentive argument.

1.2    The Phrase

Order within phrases is characterized typically in terms of a two-way typology originating  in the dependency tradition and the work of the nineteenth-century German  typologists.  This two-way typology is based on  the  division  of  the  constituents of  phrases  into head / modifier pairs such as: verb / object, verb / adverbial,  auxiliary / main  verb,  adposition / noun  phrase, noun / adjective, noun / genitive, noun / relative clause, etc. (where the first member of the pair is the head and the second the modifier). As reflected in Vennemann’s (1972) natural serialization  principle  and its analogs, languages are assumed to show a preference for serializing  constituents with  reference  to  either  the head > modifier   or   the   modifier > head   schema. Those   that   exhibit  basic  transitive   VO  order   are expected to display head >  modifier order,  and those that  have basic OV order,  modifier > head  patterns. Languages   that  conform   to  these  expectations   are termed  consistent.  Consistency,  however,  is viewed currently  not as the cross-linguistic  norm,  but rather as an ideal to which languages approximate to various degrees. And indeed very few languages are absolutely consistent  in ordering  all their modifiers either to the left or the right of the head. Thus, for example, of the 142 languages in Greenberg’s Appendix II, only 68 (48 percent) exhibit consistent  ordering  in relation  to just four  head / modifier  pairs,  i.e.,  the  verb  and  object, adposition and noun  phrase,  noun  and genitive, and noun  and  adjective.  Needless to say, the number  of consistent   languages    drops   once   further    head  / modifier pairs are considered.

Several refinements to the expectation  of consistent ordering  have  been  suggested.  One  of  these  is the principle  of cross-category  harmony  (PCCH)  formulated  by  Hawkins   (1983).  The  PCCH   states   that languages display a preference to generalize the order obtaining in one  head / modifier  category  to  that  of other  categories.  Departures from  this preference  in one head / modifier category are in turn likely to induce comparable departures in other  head / modifier  pairs. Thus, for example, Hawkins notes that the continuum in verb position,  verb-initial,  verb-medial,  and  verb- final is reflected in the position of the noun in relation to  its  modifiers,   VSO  languages   being  more  consistently  noun-initial than  SVO ones,  and  non-rigid SOV languages  (SOV languages  which allow for the placing of some modifiers to the right of the verb) less consistently noun-final  than rigid SOV ones.

Another  refinement to the preference for consistent ordering  has  been  introduced by Dryer  (1992) who argues that this preference actually involves not head/modifier  pairs  but  rather   lexical  and  phrasal   categories.  Dryer  suggests  that   languages  tend  to  be either  right-branching, in  which  phrasal   categories follow  non-phrasal categories,  or  left-branching,  in which  phrasal   categories  precede  non-phrasal  categories. This is argued to hold irrespective of which is considered to be the head and which the modifier. For non-branching categories, no word-order predictions are  made.   Thus,   according   to  Dryer’s   branching direction   theory,   whereas,  for  example,  a  genitive phrase (e.g., of John) and relative clause (whom I met) should   occur   on   the   same   side  of  the   noun,   a demonstrative phrase need not, as it is not a branching category; nor need an adjective pattern as the genitive phrase or relative clause, since it is not a fully recursive phrasal   category.   While  Dryer’s  word   order   pre- dictions  receive strong  cross-linguistic  support, their correctness is heavily dependent  on specific theories of constituent structure  which are not uncontroversial.

The  notion   of  consistent  ordering  in  its  various guises relates to the order of head / modifier pairs and says nothing  about  the ordering  of modifiers relative to each other. This latter aspect of phrasal order is still under  investigation.  One  subset  of modifiers  whose order  has  received  detailed  attention is that  of  the demonstrative, numeral,  and  adjective within simple NPs. Rijkhoff  (1997) accounts  for the cross-linguistic linearizations of these three modifiers with reference to three   principles,   namely,   the  principle   of  domain integrity,  the  principle  of  head  proximity,   and  the principle of scope. All three principles are elaborations of what  is known  as Behagel’s (1932, p. 4) first law, which is ‘what belongs  together  semantically  is also placed together syntactically.’ Of the 24 logically possible linearizations of the demonstrative, numeral, adjective, and noun, the three principles define the following eight word-order patterns  as potential  basic orders.

  • DemNumAdjN (b)       AdjNNumDem

DemNumNAdj                                  NumAdjDem

DemNAdjNum                                  DemAdjNNum

NumNAdjDem                                  NAdjNumDem

Rijkhoff’s cross-linguistic data reveal that all these orders,  and only these, are attested  as basic orders.

2.    Word Order Variation

Languages  are  classified not  only in regard  to  their basic order,  but  also with respect  to  the amount  of word  order   variation   that   they  display.  However, though labels such as rigid or fixed-order language, or free  or  flexible-order   language   are  commonplace, there is little consensus  on what  they actually  mean. This is not altogether  surprising  as it is far from clear how word-order variation  could be measured.

The major problem  in devising a measure of wordorder   variation   is  the  sheer  number   of  potential variables involved. An alternative order may be conditioned by  a  wide  range  of  factors—syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic—relating to the nature of the text and/or genre (e.g., written  vs. spoken,  narrative vs. expository  vs. procedural), the  properties  of the clause  (e.g., its illocutionary force  or  main  vs. subordinate status), the features of the verb (e.g., its voice, tense,  or  aspect)  and  the  characteristics  of its arguments and adjuncts such as referentiality, definiteness, givenness, humanness, animacy, semantic role, and morphological and syntactic complexity.  Needless to say, there is no obvious reason why changes in order attributable to any one factor or set of factors should be viewed as being more significant than others.

The above notwithstanding, some idea of the wordorder flexibility of a language can be gathered by reducing the number  of variables and considering  the number   of  word-order  permutations  in  clauses  or head/modifier  pairs  exhibiting  the same characteristics as those used for determining  the basic order.  In terms of such a measure,  English emerges as a fairly rigid word order  language  at the clausal level, as the only variation  on its basic SVO order that it permits is OSV. Polish,  on  the other  hand,  is a highly flexible word  order  language,  since in addition  to  its basic SVO order it also has all the other five permutations of the S, O, and V. Applying the above measure of wordorder flexibility to a sample of 171 1anguages, Siewierska (1997) found  no variation  on the basic transitive order in 22 percent of the languages, only one variant in 35 percent, two variants in 17 percent, three variants in  12 percent,  four  variants  in  6 percent,  and  five variations  in 8 percent.  Thus  languages  with  no  or little word-order flexibility appear  to be considerably more common  than those with highly flexible order.

Some generalizations can also be made with respect to the type of word order variations that languages are most and least likely to exhibit, namely (a) verb initial languages  are least likely to exhibit verb final orders, and  verb  final  languages,  verb  initial  orders,  (b) in languages of all word order types, SVO is a more likely variable order than OVS. Thus, an SOV language with fairly inflexible order may be expected to have an OSV variant, or possibly a SVO one, but not a VSO or OVS variant.  And  a  VSO  language  may  be  expected  to exhibit SOV order only if it also has VOS, SVO, and OVS.

The degree of word order  flexibility of a language with  respect  to  the  ordering   of  the  verb  and   its arguments  is often seen to be tied to the existence of agreement and case marking.  The argument is that, if the subject is distinguished  morphologically from the object by case and/or agreement marking, word order is ‘freed’ from performing  this function  and can thus be used for other communicative ends. This, however, is not  necessarily  so.  Cross-linguistic  data  cited  by Siewierska (1997) reveal that, contrary to what is often suggested, it is not the presence of case and agreement marking  that  has an affect on word-order  flexibility but  rather   their  absence.  Rigid  order  is associated strongly with lack of agreement and to a lesser extent with lack of case marking,  but neither the presence of case nor  agreement  marking  correlates  with  flexible order.

The  investigation  of word-order variation  carried out  to  date  suggests  that   languages   exhibit  more variation  in the ordering of constituents at the level of the clause than  at the level of the phrase.  Significant differences  in  word-order flexibility  have  also  been observed  in  regard  to  specific head/modifier  pairs. Bakker’s (1997) investigations  of the possibility of alternative  orderings of the noun and a single modifier among the languages of Europe suggests that the modifiers of the noun can be placed in a hierarchy  of decreasing   likelihood   of  exhibiting   an   alternative order  to that  of their  basic order,  namely:  adjective > genitive > relative clause > numeral > demonstrative. Whether this will be. confirmed globally remains to be determined.

3.    Discourse-Pragmatic  Vs. Processing, Explanations Of Order

Both  the cross-linguistic  preferences in regard  to the distribution of  basic  orders  as  well as  the  type  of variations  on the basic order  that  languages  tend  to favor have typically been accounted  for in discourse-pragmatic  terms.  Until  recently,  the dominant principle assumed  to underlie  linearization  has been the Topic > Comment  principle,  which defines a preference for placing constituents encoding  more  topical, predictable,  given information before those encoding less topical, unpredictable, new information. The universal applicability of this principle has been called into  question   by  the  existence  of  languages  which appear  to favor  placing  the comment  not  after,  but before, the topic. Givon (1988) has sought to reconcile the existence of two opposing  principles  of order  by formulating the principle  of Task Urgency,  which is: ‘Attend first to the most urgent task,’ where a communicative task is identified as more urgent if the information to  be communicated is either  less predictable or more important. Givon suggests that when the topic of discourse is a highly predictable  referent, the most urgent  task is to present  the comment,  and when the  topic  corresponds to  a less predictable  or unpredictable discourse referent, the most urgent task is to state the topic. Thus the principle of Task Urgency predicts a cross-linguistic preference for placing either less predictable  > more predictable  and/or more important  > less important information.

An alternative  unifying principle of order has been posited recently by Hawkins (1994), who sees order as being determined  primarily  by processing  considerations and  not discourse-pragmatic ones. Building on the long-recognized tendency to place short constituents before longer ones, Hawkins  hypothesizes that the human  parser  displays a preference for linearization patterns  which allow the quickest recognition  of immediate constituents of syntactic groupings.  This is captured in the Early  Immediate  Constituent recognition  principle  (EIC),  which is: ‘The human  parser prefers to maximize the left-to-right IC (immediate constituent)-to-word ratios of the phrasal nodes that it constructs’.  The EIC predicts that information about immediate constituency should be placed in the earlier rather  than  the later  part  of a string.  For  relatively heavy categories,  such as sentential  and  NP complements,    this   prediction    entails   a   preference    for short > long  linearization   in  right-branching  ( VO) languages and for long > short in left-branching (OV) languages.  But in the case of single-word categories, an overall preference for placing the light category to the far left is defined.

Strong  cross-linguistic  evidence  for  the  EIC  has been cited from several types of data: real-time psycholinguistic  experiments of alternative  orderings, of ICs, language-internal text frequency counts, native speaker acceptability judgments, and the cross-linguistic distribution of basic orders.  These data  show that not   only   is  there   an   unequivocal   preference   for orderings defined as optimal by the EIC, but also that there is a progressive decline in the frequency of nonoptimal  orders directly proportional to the degree of their  non-optimality defined  by  the  EIC.  Thus,  for example,  while the EIC  defines the presence of both prepositions in OV languages, and of postpositions in VO as non-optimal, the EIC score for the former, e.g., for with the friends played is considerably  lower (20 percent) than for the later, e.g., played the friends with (65 percent). And though both orders are cross-linguistically uncommon, in Dryer’s (1992) data,  OV languages with prepositions are three times less common   than   VO  languages   with   postpositions   (1.5 percent vs. 4.6 percent).

Whether  an EIC  account  of word  order  is indeed superior  to one based on discourse-pragmatic principles, as Hawkins  argues, remains to be seen.


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