The evolution of word order over a noisy channel

Michael Dunn - Department of Linguistics and Philology - Uppsala University

The evolution of word order over a noisy channel

Michael Dunn
Department of Linguistics and Philology
Uppsala University

The great majority of languages belong to two of the six logically possible types of fixed constituent order in transitive clauses: SOV or SVO. Gibson and colleagues (2013) argue this variation is functionally driven, as a trade-off between a preference for fixing certain elemens of constituent order (S precedes O, verbs are placed finally) and the communicative requirement to disambiguate argument structure over a noisy channel. A corollary of this hypothesis predicts a higher prevalence of case marking in SOV languages compared to SVO.

The behaviour of experimental participants and the frequency of types tend to support the Gibson et al. 2013 results, but artificial language tasks differ from natural languages in important ways, and frequency data on evolved variables is notoriously difficult to interpret. In this paper I present a phylogenetic comparative analysis of trade-offs between word order types and argument disambiguation strategies. This amounts to a natural experiment, showing if and to what extent natural languages have behaved over time according to the predictions of theory. Phylogenetic comparative methods are an important tool for testing the cognitive and communicative constraints on language, and I will argue that they are a critical supplement to experimental work on evolved human behaviours.

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