SOV vs SVO word order

Wolfgang Sperlich wsperlich at HOTMAIL.COM
Sun Jul 6 04:43:59 UTC 2008

In response to Richard Parker's posting on the word order issue, I think - cogito ergo sum - that the main finding of the research article given as 
We found that the word orders speakers used in their everyday speech did not influence their nonverbal behavior.
seems to prove at least one thing, namely that the biolinguistic perspective is more likely to yield scientific explanations about language rather than cognitive linguistics.
As such the verb (V) selects for its nominal argument (NPs) and if the sentence to be generated is a canonical declarative, the erstwhile parameter setting for ordering NPs sets in. Since most languages seem to allow for an actor/agent (A) role and a patient/undergoer (P) role for such NPs we traditionally also assign them the Subject (S) and Object (O) roles. To set up a binary parameter setting tree that selects between what is possible (i.e. SOV, OVS, SVO, OVS, VSO, VOS) is no mean feat and one could speculate that in early language development such parameter setting was unstable because language input to assist in the process was also unstable - hence the variety of word orders we have today. What complicates the story further is that a presumably earlier parameter setting between accusative and ergative, seems to give rise to various interpretations of what exactly the roles of the nominal arguments should be, i.e. the definitions of S and O become contested and with it the question of word order.
In any case that the visual representation of a speech act should have a different syntax comes as no surprise, precisely because language is a discreet system that interacts with many other systems but is not controlled by them.

Wolfgang Sperlich
wsperlich at

Date: Sat, 5 Jul 2008 00:01:46 -0700From: richardparker01 at yahoo.comTo: an-lang at [An-lang] SOV vs SVO word order

PNAS has published an apparently clever experiment that suggests the natural human instinct is to think in SOV order, while about 50% of languages actually use SVO order.
For a blog explaining the paper, see:
and for the paper itself:
The experimenters tested gestural order amongst English, Spanish, Chinese (presumably Mandarin) and Turkish. English and Spanish are SVO, as is Chinese (although it seems to be undergoing a change) but Turkish is strictly SOV. All of them tended mostly to 'act out' simple sentences in SOV order, quite counter-intuitively.
The researchers also found that in 'non-schooled' sign languages this is the preferred order.
I would be very interested in hearing reactions to this from professionals, especially to the questions raised by the researchers themselves:
1) Do the earliest languages in a family follow SOV order?
2) Why on earth should they change to another order? (Except, of course, if they come across someone else who has already done it, but then the explanation is required for the 'someone else' doing it).
3) Does language really reflect thinking processes? Sapir-Whorf, anyone?
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