LINGUIST List 10.1281

Thu Sep 2 1999

Disc: Re:10.1263/10.1268 Universal Word Order

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Richard M. Alderson III, Re: 10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order
  2. Franz Dotter, Antw: 10.1268, Disc: Re:Universal Word Order

Message 1: Re: 10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order

Date: Tue, 31 Aug 1999 11:12:52 -0700 (PDT)
From: Richard M. Alderson III <>
Subject: Re: 10.1263, Disc: Universal Word Order

First, your assumption that only SVO or SOV exist is incorrect: The Semitic
languages, and the Indo-European Celtic languages, are VSO, while the Mayan
languages are VOS. I believe that some Australian languages are OVS; I know
that I've read that such languages exist. (Haven't I read recently--within
the last 5 years or so--that some OSV languages have been described?)

Jim McCawley argued in a paper entitled "English as a VSO language" that the
underlying order in deep structure is VSO; Fillmore's case grammar (logical
predecessor to X-bar notation) is a variant on the same notion, as Mike Geis
once pointed out to me. So even in deep structure, more than SVO vs. SOV has
been argued.

Underlying semantic structures are unlikely to be linearly ordered, in my
opinion. Rather, the ordering is built into a language--but is not absolute:
All languages seem to have mechanisms for changing the basic word order for
emphasis/topicalization/poetic effect/what-have-you. Such mechanisms would,
I think, be impossible, were the basic word order so strongly encoded as you
would have it.

Finally, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is about post-perception semantic
organization, not about constraints on physical acts of perception, as I
understand it.

								Rich Alderson
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Message 2: Antw: 10.1268, Disc: Re:Universal Word Order

Date: Wed, 01 Sep 1999 09:09:36 +0200
From: Franz Dotter <>
Subject: Antw: 10.1268, Disc: Re:Universal Word Order

Dear colleagues!

1. To deliver my opinion on the weaker version of Sapir, Whorf and
others (e.g. Humboldt): It is acceptable as a working hypothesis, it
gets plausible whenever you learn to know foreign culrures and it is
even worth thinking of it in the context of sociolinguistics (with the
main weight on semantics).

2. Concerning the question of preferred word order (better: order of
building bricks of sentences, parts of speech) 2.a. Looking at the
phenomena of serialization themselves, we can find some coherences
between several relationships of syntactic elements, but also a big
amount of variation. Therefore we all have learnt that the so-called
'rigid types' of serialization are very rare. From that we have to
conclude that discussing whether a language is from type 3 or 12
(following Greenberg or Hamkins etc.) is a far reaching abstraction,
the epistemological value of which is not completely clear. From a
mild constructivist view I would add: It is one possible cognitive
strategy to compare languages. In this respect, it is comparable to
the strategy to look on the skin colour or shape of face of people in
order to classify them from their genetic origin (be it race, tribe or
big family). We should at least allow the thought that the
serialization type is not THE essential of language comparison or
classification from every viewpoint.

2b. The question itself (e.g. "Of which serialization type is this
language") deserves attention: In connection with the expected answers
("Language Lx is of type n; language Ly is predominantly of type m")
it illustrates a frequent utilized cognitive strategy, namely: A type
of 'simple solution strategy' or a 'simple solution expectation'. To
circumscribe this: Behind such forms of questions and expected answers
there is a cognitive structure working with rigid decisions only
('Does she love me or not?", "Is he a fearful person or not?" "black
or white?"; the computers working with 0 and 1, etc.). A second
expectation in my eyes is: The answer to every question represents a
senseful and important finding for the whole area in question. Or a
variation of that: We can give a completely satisfactory answer to
every question (especially the simple ones) . That means: The
serialization type says almost all about a language in the comparison
>From that I conclude that it must be allowed to ask whether the
question concerning the 'basic serialization' (here we additionally
find the expectation: 'There must be one and only one reason or
origin') is partially misleading because it veils our view more than
it clears something up. Especially when we take the hypothesis of a
close connection (or even merge) of cognitive strategies and diverse
forms of coding, we should conclude that it could be more useful to
look for more than one serialization type per language (i.e. to look
for different types of serializations in relation to different types
of hypothesized cognitive strategies).

Best regards

Franz Dotter

University of Klagenfurt
Research Center for Sign Language and Communication of the Hearing
Impaired (of the Faculty for Cultural Sciences at the Department of
Linguistics and Computational Linguistics)
Funded by: Bundessozialamt Kaernten, European Social Fund
Head: Franz Dotter
Collaborators: Elisabeth Bergmeister (deaf), Marlene Hilzensauer,
Klaudia Crammer, Andrea Skant, Ingeborg Okorn (deaf), Manuela Hobel
Deaf server (in German):
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