Left-right asymmetry and beyond
Lena at LH.BICOS.DE
Mon Mar 9 19:46:53 UTC 1998
Dear friends and colleagues:
Let me intervene into the discussion between Jon Aske and Matthew
Dryer (provoked by Bingfu Lu's query). First, my attempts to answer
Bingfu's questions as a native speaker of Russian made me think
there might be a mistake in the formulation of the problem (with
respect to V, O, Ad ordering). Secondly, the last message of Jon's
seems to bring the discussion to a deeper level concerning the
"foundations" of typology, and this issue seems at least as
important for all of us.
1. V, O, Ad: WHERE IS THE ASYMMETRY?
"...we find BOTH types of OV
but not BOTH types of VO languages."
It seems clear that if such a generalization holds, this means, in
contrast with what Jon claims, that one CAN talk about the order of
grammatical categories WITHOUT taking into account anything else
gain interesting facts nevertheless (e.g., the left-right
asymmetry in question).
There is a danger, however, that this generalization results not
(not only) from language facts, but from the preceding
categorization of languages into OV and VO. If this categorization
is taken too seriously, we have further theoretically possible
between Ad_O_V and O_Ad_V, on the one hand, and V_O_Ad and V_Ad_O,
on the other hand. These are theoretically possible types which
Matthew Dryer seems to have in mind in the statement above. But
if it is the case that only three of these four types are attested,
it should be kept in mind that it is not the exhaustive list of
possible "basic orders". Theoretically, we can also find O_V_Ad
languages and and Ad_V_O (VO) languages.
I would say that Russian (if it has to be affiliated with one of
the types despite its well-known word order flexibility) belongs
rather to Ad_V_O sub-type (rather than to any of the other two
sub-types theoretically possible for VO languages). Here are two
groups of sentences which show that, in fact, all three orders are
1. S_Ad_V_O seems to be the most neutral(default) option in both
2. V_Ad_O and V_O_Ad are both more marked and clearly associated
with singling out the narrow focus (on the sentence-final
constituent), yet their relative markedness depends on the
of the adverb (and of the sentence as a whole).
(The variants are ordered from less marked to more (pragmatically)
marked, according to my feelings about them):
Ja vchera videl Ivana
I yesterday saw I.
Ja videl vchera IVANA
I saw yesterday I.
Ja videl Ivana VCHERA
I saw I. yesterday (narrow focus on the adverb).
On medlenno vel mashinu
he slowly drove car
On vel mashinu MEDLENNO
he drove car slowly (narrow focus on the adverb)
On vel medlenno MASHINU, no na lodke kazalsja drugim chelovekom
he drove slowly car but on boat seemed another person (INSTR)
(Without a context such as this, this order seems strange).
(I have dropped here options with pre-verbal object, although they
are pretty good as well).
Assuming for the moment that there are no O_V_Ad languages, we are
contrasted with a distribution which clearly differs from that put
forward by Bingfu Lu and Matthew Dryer: of six possible sub-types,
we find four, two for each type.
OV languages VO languages
If this is the case, it seems to be an (additional) indication that
there is a deeper asymmetry inherent in the CATEGORIZATION into OV
vs. VO (roughly, OV means "verb-final", while VO specifies only the
relative order of V and O, not more and not less).
1. IS TYPOLOGY POSSIBLE?
"...I think there is a real danger that
typologists looking at grammars of
languages they do not have a good grasp
of will draw unwarranted conclusions from
a very limited number of examples.
I guess, nobody can deny that this danger is real indeed.
Furthermore, I am afraid that the only conclusion one can draw from
such a statement is that typology is impossible, especially the
of typology Jon himself considers the only adequate one - with a
full understanding of pragmatic functions, etc. In fact, how one
expect that somebody has "a good grasp of", say, 150, 450 or any
other statistically reasonable number of languages? There are
who have been studying, say, the Russian word order for dozens of
years (with or without evident success), yet it is still far from
clear which "pragmatic functions" are to be assigned to particular
patterns. And what should a typologist do with this?
Moreover, it can be added that "the very limited number of
examples" constituting the basis of typological conclusions for a
specific language are, to say the least, not always reliable. To
the truth, almost every time when I came across examples from my
native language (and it is far from being endangered or studied not
widely enough) in typological works, I could not help asking myself
what we all are doing, if even examples from such a language as
Russian are often far from being quite good (In my collection of
such examples there are even false verb forms, like "radovajetsja"
instead of "radujetsja", not to speak of such minor issues as case
assignment, word order, and the like). Less often, but often
I had to conclude that some typologists knew much more about
Yukaghir than I did and were able to draw far-reaching
conclusions(from a short essay published by Jochelson in 1905)
I was not able to draw despite many years of studying these
And, nevertheless, typological studies seem to have brought about
results which are reliable (and have not been falsified by experts
in specific languages) and could never be obtained without such
studies. I believe, it is not in this discussion list where one
to prove this statement. I think (however trivial this idea is),
only condition which has made this possible, is the ability to
abstract some (relatively) transparent patterns from the wide range
of underlying factors and motivations, i.e., exactly what Jon seems
to be reluctant to allow. It is clear that such abstractions can be
more or less promising, more or less verified and convincing, etc.
It is however even more clear that if typologists had not allowed
themselves a certain degree of freedom in this respect (which may
seem and often seems invalid to experts in specific languages, not
to speak of their native speakers), neither of striking and
wonderful results we all know now would have been ever obtained.
I apologize if these observations are too trivial to be worth
expressing in the discussion list, yet Jon's remarks concern too
important an issue to remain silent.
University of Bielefeld
lena at lh.bicos.de
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