10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order

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LINGUIST List:  Vol-10-1263. Mon Aug 30 1999. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order

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Date:  Sun, 29 Aug 1999 13:20:34 KST
From:  "Sean Witty" <wittysan at hotmail.com>
Subject:  Intuitions on universal word order

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Sun, 29 Aug 1999 13:20:34 KST
From:  "Sean Witty" <wittysan at hotmail.com>
Subject:  Intuitions on universal word order

Recently I read an article concerning the existence of a universal word
order. The author analyzes one argument for a universal SVO word order,
discusses what is wrong with that argument, and then proceeds to argue in
favor of a universal SOV word order. The most notable features of both
arguments presented are

1. The SVO argument belongs to a native speaker of an SVO language and is
based solely on other SVO languages. The author of the article, and a
proponent of the SOV argument, is a native speaker of an SOV language, the
argument is based on other SOV languages and flaws in the SVO argument.

2. Despite validity questions and obvious flaws present in both arguments
(i.e., selection of languages used in argumentation and obvious exceptions
that were overlooked), they are equally compelling.

I spent some time afterwards pondering over the issue of word order. Is
there a universal word order? If so, what is it? If not, how can non-native
speakers of a language casually acquire languages of the other word order
type? Why do human beings use two separate word orders to achieve the same

According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a person's perception of the world,
culture, is influenced by that person's native language. One hundred years
earlier, Humboldt suggests that culture, as its benefactor, influences
language. While there is plenty of evidence to support both sides of this
argument, neither is actually antithetical to the other and it is sufficient
to say that language and culture have an independent, yet mutually
symbiotic, relationship.

Regardless of cultural or linguistic affiliation, all "normal" humans
possess the same five senses and a brain that works, more or less, the same
way. Generally, cultural affiliations determine one's perception of the
world and one's linguistic affiliation; linguistic affiliations determine
how one communicates with others. Languages, therefore, represent cognitive
perception after cultural influence. This would suggest, therefore, that it
is not an individual's perception of the world that is influenced by
culture, but the way in which that world is expressed. Many people have had
thoughts that were difficult to put into words, and many languages do not
have forms that other languages do. The important thing is that people still
have these thoughts and ideas, even if the language does not. Thus, whatever
influence culture and language have on each other, it starts at the deep
structure, where cognition meets language.

If the universal word order is SVO/SOV (choose one), then all speakers of
SOV/SVO (choose the other) languages would necessarily be speaking a
language in opposition to their cognitive processes. This frame of logic
begs three questions:

1. What would prompt a culture group to adopt a linguistic affiliation that
is antithetical to cognitive reality?

2. What advantage is gained by doing so?

3. How does one explain the linguistic processes involved?

In the original article, questions 1 and 2 are ignored. Perhaps this is
appropriate, since linguists hardly ever concern themselves with
non-linguistic questions of "why". When faced with two equally plausible
arguments, however, it is always preferable to select the simpler of the
two. In this case, not only are the arguments equally plausible, they are
equally complicated.  Thus, questions 1 and 2 become appropriate because
both sides have presented "equal" arguments as answers to question 3.

The answers to the first and second questions are quite easy: they would
not. People are generally lazy and, as such, they prefer language systems
that are simple and easy to master. If the opposite were true, then the
Roman alphabet would never have developed and the Northern Semitic alphabet
might still be used. Many people attest to changes in language, but our
languages really do not change -- simply our usage of them. In almost all
cases of linguistic change, the new form represents a simplification of the
older form (for example, enclitic mutation, pictographic vs. phonetic
writing systems, and metathesis). Without any advantage to be gained, a
clumsy linguistic system that is antithetical to the cognitive process would
quickly become extinct in favor of a less complicated, more convenient

Since both sides provide convincing arguments, yet attribute behavior that
is inconsistent with human nature, perhaps they are both right AND they are
both wrong?

Suppose a woman sees an apple on a table. According to the SOV rationale and
Sapir-Whorf, she realizes the apple before realizing that she sees it, and
few would argue differently. Thus, cognitive perception of the direct
object, 'the apple', precedes perception of the preterit, 'to see'. SVO
speakers, therefore, must modify the order of perception to fit the word
order demands of their languages.

Now, suppose the woman eats the apple and visits her boyfriend, who offers
to cook dinner for her. According to the SVO rationale and Sapir-Whorf, the
woman realizes that she has already eaten before she realizes that the apple
is what she ate. Thus, cognitive perception of the preterit, 'to eat',
precedes perception of the direct object, 'the apple'. SOV speakers,
therefore, must modify the order of cognitive perception to fit the word
order demands of their languages.

In truth, it is impossible to say that, 100% of the time, perception is in
accordance with the word order of one's native language. As such, it makes
sense that every language, as a universal rule, would have a primary word
order (SOV/SVO) and linguistic processes for dealing with perception that
does not conform to this order.

In the case of the universal SVO word order argument, the formulae to
explain the derivation of the SOV surface form do not support universal SVO,
but do explain how SOV languages deal with SVO perceptions. Similar formulae
in the SOV argument neither explain the derivation of the SVO surface form
nor support universal SOV, but do explain how SVO languages deal with SOV

Since there exist occasions when cognitive perception can be either SVO or
SOV, it seems likely that both forms are universal at the cognitive level.
When these perceptions are converted into linguistic forms, the deep
structure of the language forces conversion of perceptions that do not
conform to the word order of the language. The only universal truth about
word order, then, is that the subject must precede the verb -- but this is
another issue.

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