LINGUIST List 10.1289

Sat Sep 4 1999

Disc: Universal Word Order

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  • Larry, Re: 10.1283, Disc: Universal Word Order
  • Sean Witty, Re: 10.1283, Disc: Universal Word Order

    Message 1: Re: 10.1283, Disc: Universal Word Order

    Date: Fri, 3 Sep 1999 12:05:42 +0900
    From: Larry <>
    Subject: Re: 10.1283, Disc: Universal Word Order

    The following is with reference to previous articles and related comments by Dan Moonhawk Alford:

    Through a linguist friend I have received information about Kalapuya and Sahaptin, two items from the pool of native languages belonging to the several dozen (!) language families (!) in Oregon (USA)

    - begin quote: --

    Kalapuya itself is kind of an anomaly in Oregon. The languages around it are generally VSO (except for Sahaptin, which has no particular word order but a second position 1st and 2nd person pronominal clitic, like Serbo-Croatian or some Australian languages). It, on the other hand, is strictly SVO with a complicated tense-aspect-pronominal prefix system and various aspectual and adverbial suffixes to the verb. It has an article a(n)- which does not always seem to be definate. And a strange laryngealization to the end of the vowel/resonant syllable nucleus, perhaps like Danish.

    - end quote --

    It was stated: "...are generally VSO". Well, the point i wanted to stress is that I see no evidence supporting any hypothesis that SOV or SVO are more fundamental than other structural orders or in any way universal. I am curious to know how, with all the diversity of language structures ("the evidence"), any hypothesis of a "universal word order" could have arisen in the first place. In other words, what empirical evidence do we have that suggests that there is such a thing as "universal word order"? As much as I like to speculate myself (and even at times without evidence to begin with, just with a hunch or purely imagined idea), I think one needs to be more careful when stating that humans must either think in SVO or SOV pattersn because the world around us is *obviously* ordered that way. I would suggest that the world around us is not ordered that way (or any other specific way), but we create mental systems by which we order it and use "maps" (language) to navigate it. Those maps make the world *obvious* to us - in a different way, however, than to the user of a different map.

    All evidence I have seen so far suggests that there are *many* maps that are "accurate enough" in practical terms, meaning that their users can function in the world. Since there are maps that do not include nouns and others that do not include verbs, any discussion of *universality* ought to be taken to a different level, away from considerations of word order. Imagine we were trying to discuss macroeconomics by arguing about the relative value to each other of nickels, dimes, and quarters... :-)

    Regards: Larry

    Message 2: Re: 10.1283, Disc: Universal Word Order

    Date: Sat, 04 Sep 1999 02:32:18 KST
    From: Sean Witty <>
    Subject: Re: 10.1283, Disc: Universal Word Order

    Watch out folks, Dan's gonna tell us how it is...

    >[moonhawk] > >Pardon me for butting in, but butt in I do when I see serious >misrepresentations or misunderstandings of Whorf fly by on this >list, or >when someone's peddling the old, tired Hoax again.

    Dan's opinion, in case you missed it.

    >Aren't people tired of kicking Whorf's corpse yet? You can't >imagine, and >I mean that literally for some, what's actually in his >essays when you >read them! You can even take off the Hypothesis Hoax >filters and read them >for yourself -- essays that many Native >Americans and quantum physicists >these days take much more seriously >than most linguists do!

    Well, I don't know. The last time we had this discussion, I think I pointed out that, at least onomastically speaking, language is influenced by culture. For those of you who don't remember, Michael Jackson's dance, "the Moonwalk" would've probably had a different name had it come out in the 1950s, when people thought walking on the moon was a crazy idea. Further, I am also of the opinion that language influences culture, in that we name things according to the experiences that we have already had (i.e., rock candy).

    That's all I need from Sapir-Whorf to advanced my ideas. No kicking, no view of the world that is skewed by Whorfian fallacy.

    >[moonhawk] > >Wow -- only two human choices, eh? No topic/comment? That's the >whole of >syntactic choices?

    Several people asked about this. That's all I was given by the two authors. Personally, however, what I know about VS languages, little that it is, I'm not convinced otherwise.

    >[witty] > >According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, > >[moonhawk] > >again, whose version of this academic hoax? >

    Not that important.

    >[witty] > >a person's perception of the world, culture, is influenced by that >person's native language. > >[moonhawk] > >Except for "and vice versa," it's true as stated, IMO, but show me >the >page number where either Whorf or Sapir wrote that.

    "Vice versa" is also within the context of my argument. i am only trying to re-affirm a connection between the two and, in a rare instance of agreement between us, that they mutually influence each other. I don't need a page number, however, for two reasons:

    1). I'm sharing intuitions not writing a thesis. 2). I share that ratiionale because I thought of it on my own before reading it anywhere (in fact, I first heard of the theory from you four years ago but already reached the same conclusion on my own).

    >[witty] > >One hundred years earlier, Humboldt suggests that culture, as its >benefactor, influences language. > >[moonhawk] > >That's the "and vice versa" Sapir and Whorf were aware of, and also >probably true -- but where is it from?

    Again, not writing a thesis here, but its from On Language, 1834.

    >[witty] > >neither is actually antithetical to the other and it is sufficient >to say >that language and culture have an independent, yet mutually >symbiotic, >relationship. > >[moonhawk] > >yes -- in a complementary, mutually determining, interdependent way. >Take >a look at the yin and yang of the Tao to see graphically what >you said >verbally.

    I'm not quite sure I appreciate the academic value of you rhetoric here? Are you agreeing with me or not? In either case, it seems that you have missed the fact that I'm trying to build an argument based on progressive premises. By the way, which particular Taoist book are you refering to, and on which page?

    >[witty] > >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. > >[moonhawk] > >yes, guess, after we average out significant differences. See >Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, for a wider notion of >perception, unshackled from the five-senses-only concept which we >otherwise receive from our culture. "Normal" means ... what -- with >the >extraordinary differences averaged out? When you DON'T average >them out, >you get things like synaesthesia, as in The Man Who Tasted >Shapes.

    Good to see there is agreement on something.

    >I find the differences in perception, cognition, and language at >least as >interesting as I find the commonalities, as I believe did >Humboldt, Boas, >Sapir, and Whorf. Before the hegemony of universals >began demonizing >relativity (and the horse it rode into town on), >universals and >differences were both "cool", in complementary >opposition as principles of >linguistics. Some linguists like >researching universals, some like >differences, and some like both. >Whorf, for instance, had 3-4 different >explanations and statings of >his single relativity principle, but probably >has 6-7 statements of >different universals (by my vague recollection), >which universalists >have never explored after labeling him a relativist.

    I'm in the both category - for your information.

    >[witty] > >Generally, cultural affiliations determine one's perception of the >world >and one's linguistic affiliation; linguistic affiliations >determine how >one communicates with others. > >[moonhawk] > > ... if one wants to wallow in 19th-century determinism more suited >to >billiard balls than to invisible mental/linguistic forms, that is.

    Ah, a return to opinions...

    >[moonhawk] > >and what if there is no universal word order? Do you mean to imply >that >cognitive reality is fixed and has nothing to do with language?

    Not at all Dan, you missed the point (go figure). There is no universal word order because all "true" word orders are universal. From what I have found from analyzing languages, rather than spending my time reading and criticizing other peoples ideas, the closest thing to a universal word order is SV, and the O is in consequential. For those who acknowledge VSO as a "true" word order, which I don't, add that to you pantheon of universal word orders. In short, searching for a single all encompassing word order is a fruitless endeavor.

    >[moonhawk] > >I must have missed the article or book demonstrating that the Roman >alphabet is simpler and easier to master than a *syllabary* for >speakers >of simple-syllabic languages. Can you provide a cite? >Otherwise, this just >seems to prefer what you are used to.

    Actually Dan, I'm used to three alphabets these days, eight or nine if you want to count variants of the Roman alphabet. Let cite an example from Korean, if Dan will allow me to do so without getting anal about page numbers and book titles. Before the 15th century, the Korean language used the Chinese script as its orthographic system. During the reign of King Sejong, the current phonetic alphabet was invented so that writing would be made easier (if you could pronounce it, you could write it).

    Similarly, the Roman alphabet is simpler than the Northern Semitic syllabary because, although both are phonetic, the Roman alphabet represents sounds at smaller units (thereby requiring the momorization of fewer characters to have the same orhtographic effect). This is a simpler and more efficient system, not because I sue the Roman alphabet everyday, but because, according to Bodmer, it just is.

    >[witty] > >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 language. > >[moonhawk] > >huh? I can't buy the argument, which simply ignores other changes >which do >not simplify.

    Again Dan, this is not a thesis, certain aspects are going to be summarized for the main point. Certainly there are changes that do not simplify but clarify instead, but even these end up getting simplified in the end. Also note, "in almost all cases" and the conclusive condition that some advantage must be gained from making the change. You don't buy this argument because you simply don't want to. I'm not selling anything unbelievable here.

    >[witty] > >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 >[sic!], the woman realizes that she has already eaten >before she realizes >that the apple is what she ate. > >[moonhawk] > >HUH?! See how crazy this gets without supporting quotes?!

    Huh? See how crazy you seem if you miss an obvious point because you're spending too much energy being critical and argumentative.

    >[witty] > >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. > >[moonhawk] > >I hope this makes more sense to others than it does to me! And what >does >this mean for speakers of languages where you "can talk all day >long and >never utter a single noun"? They never know what they eat?

    Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan... You've clearly missed the boat.

    >[witty] > >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. > >[moonhawk] > >nonsense! still only two choices?

    nonsense Dan? So I guess when you ask a question like "Is he here?" you perceive his act of being before you perceive him? If that's so, or at least you want to go that far, please explain how you knew to inflect that verb, that you realized before the subject, third person singular, without the subject having come into your cognition before the verb.

    >[moonhawk] > >nonsense again, leaving out topic/comment, among others. Subject/object >discriminations are projected onto reality by users of the linguistic >structure and then SEEN there as real! Sometimes even by linguists!

    Dan, I do not view Subject as a case, just a semantic category. Topic, on the other hand, in a subject, whether stated or not. If you thought as deep as your dialogue has sunk, you might begin to realize this.

    >What if you spoke a language with 80 permissible syllables, each of >which >iconically embodied root-level kinesthetic feelings of >biological >movement, process, and relationship? These roots combine >and recombine >endlessly to create what we woulld variously label a >single word OR a >sentence, with a morphosyntax that has so far >defied sensible analysis >because of universalist blinders. A >language with no separate subjects and >objects, no tense system videntials instead), a kind of "vector" system >instead of our >pronouns -- where you can talk all day long and not utter a >single >separate noun, and you don't ever use metaphors because the > >transparent-root system nearly forces you to make up completely novel >WORDS (and be understood) with the same ease with which we utter >novel >sentences. At least, that's how the doctorate-educated Natives >explain it >to me, from the insides of such languages.

    Two points here. One, a part-of-speech argument is unrelated, unless you want to link specific POS to word order positions. Outside of the occasion interchange of "preterit" and "verb' for V, I've not used POS terminology, so I don't know why you're bringing it up.

    Second, how is the language you are conjecturing any different from those we speak now? I doubt very seriously that, in my linguistic realm and world of POS terminology, you could ramble all day long without uttering a single noun.

    >Can either of you fit that into a universalist pipe and smoke it? ;-)

    Well Dan, since I'm not a universalist, I guess I'd have to say no, i can't. In the future, why don't try reading things objectively before you disagree with them. You might find some agreement.

    My apologies to everyone else, but I am a little annoyed.

    Sean M. Witty Seoul, Korea