The constant flow of linguistic information and word order

Gertraud Fenk-Oczlon - Alpen-Adria Universitaet Klagenfurt

The constant flow of linguistic information and word order

Gertraud Fenk-Oczlon
Alpen-Adria University of Klagenfurt

The constant flow of linguistic information hypothesis postulates that in an effective and economical communication system the information should be distributed as uniformly as possible over time, and that the average level of information transmitted per time should be adapted to our capacity limits (Fenk & Fenk 1980; cf. Jäger 2010).

Our 1980 paper revealed a proportionality function between word information (in bits) and word length (in syllables) in nine languages, thus indicating a constant flow of information. In this talk, I will focus on word order and the regularity “the more predictable first”. This regularity seems to compensate for the successive reduction of information within clauses and sentences. In general, as a sentence continues, the number of possible continuations and thus subjective information decreases. To place elements conveying a high amount of information at the beginning of a sequence, i.e. a position which is per se characterized by high uncertainty or information (Shannon 1951), would produce peaks of cognitive overload. An appropriate strategy to avoid such peaks is the tendency to begin a sentence with those words having a higher predictability in this context. For instance, with (groups of) words referring to (groups of) words of the preceding sentence, and with terms coding concepts activated by this preceding sentence (Fenk-Oczlon 1983, 1989, 2001; Fenk -Oczlon & Fenk 2002).

I will present data showing that the strategy “the more predictable first” may explain

  • the cross-linguistic prevalence of the subject first word ordersSOV and SVO
  • SOV/SVO variation
  • word order in frozen conjoined expressions
  • within-sentence distribution of function words and content words in German

Furthermore, interactions between word order, syllable complexity, and speech information rate will be discussed within the framework of the constant flow of linguistic information hypothesis.

Slides of the talk


Fenk, A. & Fenk, G. (1980). Konstanz im Kurzzeitgedächtnis – Konstanz im sprachlichen Informationsfluß? Zeitschrift für experimentelle und angewandte Psychologie, 27, 400-414

Fenk-Oczlon, G. (1983). Ist die SVO-Wortfolge die „natürlichste“? Papiere zur Linguistik, 29, 23-32

Fenk-Oczlon, G. (1989). Word frequency and word order in freezes. Linguistics 27, 517-556

Fenk-Oczlon, G. (2001). Familiarity, information flow, and linguistic form. In J. Bybee and P. Hopper (Eds.) Frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure (pp. 431-448). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins

Fenk-Oczlon, G. & Fenk, A. (2002) Zipf’s tool analogy and word order. Glottometrics 5, 22-28

Jaeger, T. F. (2010). Redundancy and reduction: Speakers manage syntactic information density. Cognitive Psychology, 61, 23 -62

Shannon, C.E. (1951). Prediction and entropy of printed English. The Bell System Technical Journal 30, 50-54

Gertraud Fenk-Oczlon

Gertraud Fenk-Oczlon is associate Professor of Linguistics (ret.) at the Alpen-Adria University of Klagenfurt. For more information about her please visit: