Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Original Word Order

The October 23 AWAD email had a link to a news article on the word order of the first language. Talk like Yoda? We May have originally by Natalie Wolchover in the Science website of She was reporting on a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Merritt Ruhlen and Murray Gell-Mann, co-directors of the Santa Fe Institute Program on the Evolution of Human Languages.

Of the six possible word orders of Subject, Object, Verb, slightly over half of the 2,000 languages they looked at are SOV (I you like). English is SVO (I like you) while Latin and German are SOV. The SOV order, the authors claim, is the most likely order for the proto human language from which all the rest have evolved. Incidentally, it is also the word order spoken by Yoda in Star Wars, hence the title of the article.

Ruhlen and Gell-Mann came to this conclusion after creating a family tree of the world's languages and discovering a clear pattern. While SOV languages changed into other orders, the other orders never changed into SOV. Therefore SOV had to be the original order.

A previous article had also predicted SOV as the original but based on an entirely different information. Tom Givon, a linguist from the University of Oregon, argued that the SOV order is the most natural to humans as evidenced by how children learn language.

So, perhaps Yoda's speech would not seem so strange to a German?


  1. Russian is mostly SVO I think but can go either way in some cases. I love you. I you love. I don't know enough to understand when or why. Adjective noun order seems to be AN, not NA.
    One of the "benefits" of having different endings for different cases is that word order is more flexible. Simplifying words as English has done, means word order is critical. And of course English pronunciation is the killer.

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